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Saturday, August 29, 2015

TERRIFIC NEW NOVEL: Cat Winters: "The Uninvited"

Author:  Cat Winters  
Title:  The Uninvited 
Plot Type:  Gothic Romance (with ghosts)
Ratings:  Violence—2-3; Sensuality3; Humor—3 
Publisher:  HarperCollins (8/2015)

This review begins with an overview of the historical setting, followed by the publisher's blurb and my review of the novel. I highly recommend this book for its imaginatively layered plot, well-developed characters, and engrossing story-telling technique.

     The story, which is based on real-life events, is set in small-town Buchanan, Illinois, in early October 1918. The world is in the final weeks of World War I (aka the Great War), and as thousands of soldiers are dying in European combat, their wives and children back home are also dying, victims of the terrible Spanish Flu pandemic that is sweeping the globe. 

WWI Propaganda Poster
     Anti-German sentiment (Germanophobia) is rampant, and all of the citizens of Buchanan are under constant scrutiny by members of the local branch of the American Protective League (APL), a (real-life) hyper-patriotic group that patrols the town in search of people who show any signs of German sympathy. Families of German ethnicity have changed their names to sound more American. German-named streets and towns have also been renamed. For example, Buchanan's Werner Street becomes Willow Street. All German music is forbidden. (Good-bye Beethoven and Bach.) All European immigrants are viewed with suspicion and are usually forced to live in the shabbiest part of town, far away from "real" Americans. 

WWI Propaganda
Here is a list of "typical enemy behavior" as listed in the fictional Buchanan Sentinel: "food hoarding; interference with the draft; slackers who refuse to enlist for military duty; refusal to purchase Liberty Bonds; possession of books, sheet music, and phonograph albums celebrating German culture; speaking a language other than English; the use of hyphenated nationalities when describing one's self (e.g., 'German-American,' 'Polish-American'); anti-war sentiments; the production of Socialist pamphlets and newspapers; and the discussion of unionization among factory workers." People are encouraged to spy on their neighbors and turn suspicious people over the APL in order "to cleanse the country of the enemy." At one point in the book, the heroine is forced by an APL agent to kiss the American flag to prove her loyalty. As one character in the book declares, "This is not the fantastical land of liberty that people portray in stories. The melting pot does nothing but scald and blister right now." Winters' descriptions of anti-immigrant fervor come uncomfortably close to the xenophobic rants of some politicians and their supporters in our country today. 

Flu Prevention Ad
     When the virulent Spanish flu arrives, people begin to die horrible deaths, and towns and cities cannot keep up with medical treatment or burial. One after another, people are dying from the horrific effects of massive hemorrhages; uncontrollable, forceful coughing; and severe stomach and intestinal distress within days of showing their first symptoms. Many turn blue as they suffocate from a lack of oxygen as their lungs fill with fluid. These are horrific, rapid deaths that, for the most part, take place at home before the eyes of family members who will probably become the next victims because hospitals are filled to overflowing. (NOTE: By the time the lethal waves of disease receded in late 1919, between 50 and 100 million people had lost their lives worldwide.) 

Flu Prevention Ad
     In this early twentieth-century world, there are no anti-viral medications, so doctors treat their patients by having family members wear protective gauze masks, banning coughing and spitting in public, and telling flu victims to go to bed.  Many people, particularly immigrants and African Americans, receive little or no medical care and must rely on home remedies like eating raw onions, hanging bags of camphor around their necks, or swallowing spoonfuls of whiskey. (Click HERE and scroll down a bit to read a newspaper article about a San Francisco public health officer shooting a man who refused to wear an influenza mask.)

                         PUBLISHER'S BLURB                          
     Jazz. Gin. Ghosts. Twenty-five-year-old Ivy Rowan rises from her sickbed after being struck by the great influenza epidemic of 1918, only to discover that the world has been torn apart in just a few short days.

     But Ivy's lifelong gift—or curse—remains. She sees the uninvited ones—ghosts of loved ones who appear to her, unasked for and unwelcome, for they always herald impending death. On that October evening in 1918, Ivy sees the spirit of her grandmother, rocking in her mother's chair. An hour later, she learns her younger brother and father have killed a young German out of retaliation for the death in the Great War of Ivy's other brother, Billy. 

     Horrified, she leaves home and soon realizes that the flu has caused utter panic and the rules governing society have broken down. Ivy is drawn into this new world of jazz, passion, and freedom, where people live for today, because they could be stricken by nightfall. She even enters into a relationship with the murdered German man's brother, Daniel Schendel. But as her "uninvited guests" begin to appear to her more often, she knows her life will be torn apart once again, and terrifying secrets will unfold. 

                       MY REVIEW                          
   As the story opens, Ivy Anne Rowan, a reclusive piano teacher, is awakened by the presence of the ghost of her grandmother, a harbinger of death. These "Uninvited Guests" visit the Rowan women just as a death occurs. "Their presence suggested that the wall dividing the living and the dead had opened a crack, and one day that crack might teal us away to the other side." Then Ivy hears the shouts and curses of her drunken father and brother as they stagger home from town after beating a young German immigrant to death. Although weak from her recent bout with the flu and still grieving over the war death of her beloved brother, Billy, Ivy packs up and leaves her family home, vowing never again to interact with her violent, alcoholic father. She rents a room in town from a young war widow and seeks to make amends to Daniel, the dead man's brother. At every step, she is shadowed by a sinister young APL officer who had been one of Billy's childhood friends. And that, my friends, is the extent of the plot that I am willing to reveal. Trust me, and trust the authorand PLEASE be careful not to read reviews that contain spoilers.

     I read only one review before I started my own reading of this bookthat of USA Today reviewer Michelle Monkou, who begins her analysis with these words: "Read this book. I refuse to give any spoilers or hints to spoilers. Trust me, you won't be disappointed…" I admit that the first quarter of the book develops slowly, and that I did think (briefly) that I wouldn't finish the book, but Cat Winters is a masterful writer, and shethrough Ivy's eloquent first-person voicesoon drew me into a story that kept me reading it straight through in one sitting (which ended at 3:00 a.m.!).

     Winters mixes together Emily Dickinson's and Robert Herrick's poetry, Jazz-Age music, war-time grief and hysteria, the terrible flu epidemic, and an ethereal Gothic romance and comes up with an enthralling, mysterious, genre-bending tale. We see just how far humans will go when, in the face of fear, they develop a "patriotic" duty that involves the punishment of easy scapegoats.  But we also see that some refuse to succumb to their basest natures. As naive, guilt-driven Ivy moves from one all-new experience to another, she plays a pivotal role in an intricately woven, extraordinary tale that ends with a twist that you won't see coming. 

     Winters builds the story in layers, with subtle use of foreshadowing and discreet hints. Although the pace is slow in the first few chapters, Ivy's life in town soon develops into a whirlwind of diverse activities. As ghosts begin to appear and events get out of hand, she recalls favorite poems that reflect what is happening to her and listens to the wildly alluring jazz music being played nightly in the Masonic Lodgemusic that lifts up her soul and allows her brief escapes from dark reality. At one point, Ivy stands "motionless, mute, absorbing the if receiving anesthetizing doses of laudanum to kill off the pain…I closed my eyes…and let the melody slide through my blood until my heart thump-thump-thumped with jazz and strength and an unexpected surge of hope."

     If you stumble over oddly placed details, or seem to see plot holes, or wonder why the paranormal aspect is so light, do not despair. Winters has a reason for each and every word in this book, and as her inventive and perfectly constructed plot reaches its final haunting chapter (Don't peek!), everything will fall into placeI promise. By the time I got to the end, I wanted to read the book again to look for the clues I had missed.  

     As the plot plays out, Winters creates an otherworldly, achingly romantic atmosphere in which Ivy searches for peace and freedom in a war-torn, disease-ravaged world. The jazz scenes are truly magical. I highly recommend this book for any reader who loves well-written Gothic romances with a touch of the paranormal. You won't be disappointed.

     If you are looking for a book club read, Winter includes a set of 15 discussion questions along with a brief historical overview of the period, including the sources she used to create several characters and events. Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from The Uninvited on its page. Just click on the cover art for a print version or the "Listen" icon for audio. 

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