Book Review: The Uninvited: A Novel, Cat Winters (2015)

August 12th, 2015 7:00 am by Kelly Garbato

Hope is the Girl with Bright Blue Butterfly Wings

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence.)

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

We were music. We were jazz. We were alive.

Like her mother Alice and her Granny Letty before her, Ivy Rowan can see Uninvited Guests. Ghosts, harbinger spirits who only appear to Ivy to herald a death. Instead of offering her comfort, the ghosts of her beloved ancestors inspire nothing but fear and dread in Ivy’s bleeding heart. Every time they visit her, someone dies.

The year is 1918. As the twin horrors of World War I and the Spanish Influenza rip across the globe, leaving millions of corpses in their wake – many of them the young and the healthy; those who should have their whole lives ahead of them – the ghosts seem to come at Ivy in droves. Death is a constant.

There’s her younger brother Billy, who was killed in the Battle of Saint-Michiel just a month ago. Eddie Dover, target of so many teenage crushes, also felled in battle. And Albrecht Schendel – the German businessman her father Frank and youngest brother Peter beat to death in cold blood.

Fueled by whiskey and grief – not to mention toxic levels of American patriotism – the pair broke into his furniture store late at night, vandalized and otherwise trashed the place, tortured poor Albrecht, and ultimately garroted him to death. They blamed “his people” – Germany, the country he fled – for Billy’s death. Wishing to avoid an “incident” like that in Collinsville, the police and media covered up their involvement, instead claiming that a pair of traveling vagrants (conveniently long gone) was to blame.

Though Ivy never got on well with her abusive and alcoholic father, this latest injustice is the last straw, the one that finally drives the twenty-five-year-old recluse/spinster to leave her family’s farm on the outskirts of town. She rents a room with May Dover – Eddie’s widow – and is unwittingly recruited into helping two Red Cross volunteers transport “less desirable” influenza patients (read: immigrants of Polish, Russian, and Romanian descent, as well as African-Americans) across the south side of town.

Desperate to repent for the sins of her father and brother, she strikes up a tentative relationship with the brother of the murdered German, Daniel Schendel. Together they create an Eden of sorts in the upper quarters of Liberty Brothers Furniture, an escape from the death and disease of the outside world. However, Daniel’s harboring an important secret – one that threatens to upend Ivy’s fragile happiness for good.

So this is my first Cat Winters novel, though In the Shadow of Blackbirds and The Cure for Dreaming are both on my TBR/wishlist. They both just got bumped a little higher up, let me tell you.

The Uninvited is a thing of beauty; a lovely and masterful mashup of multiple genres: historical fiction, romance, ghost story. The prose is charming and nicely complemented by the poetry of Emily Dickinson – of which Ivy, a fellow home-bound young woman, is a fan. The pacing is steady, though the first and final acts of the book have rather distinct vibes. The supernatural element of the plot doesn’t really manifest until the last act, and ghosts remain mostly absent until the ~40% mark. This kept me on my toes and guessing – and ultimately, the story was not at all what I expected (in the best way possible!).

For me, the unlikely romance between Ivy and Daniel really stole the show. Its beginning is a little creepy, but the relationship slowly blossoms into something beautiful and enchanting – but also terribly complicated. On the surface, there’s the fact that Ivy’s own family murdered Daniel’s brother. Though her sensitive heart is wracked with grief, Daniel forgives her. Or rather, he never has to, not quite, since she shouldn’t be made to pay for the mistakes of others – just as Daniel himself shouldn’t be treated like an enemy combatant just for the country of his birth.

No stranger to assuming the burdens of others – “Wendy Darling” stayed on at her family’s farm so that she might protect her younger siblings from her father’s wrath, for example – Ivy’s companionship with Daniel also threatens to put her in the crossfire of the the American Protective League, personified here by Billy’s childhood friend Lucas. The APL was a big brother-type organization made up of private citizens who worked with federal agents to root out those with suspected pro-German and socialist loyalties. Bullies and specks who target others to feel more significant, to paraphrase Daniel.

Many of the organizations and events that form the more hateful backdrop of The Uninvited are pulled from the pages of history. Fort Oglethorpe really was an internment camp in Georgia; Robert Paul Prager was a German-born coal miner in Collinsville, Illinois, who was killed by a lynch mob in 1918; Alien Registration Cards were a thing; and WWI saw bans, both official and de facto, on German language, music, foods, etc. In a trend still seen today (“freedom fries,” anyone?), sauerkraut was renamed liberty cabbage, and hamburgers became liberty steaks. Buchanan’s ban on performing Beethoven? Totally plausible.

In addition to the anti-German sentiment that permeated American society during WWI, Winters also explores the race, class, and ethnic dimensions of the 1918 influenza epidemic. When she encounters a Red Cross transport vehicle stalled on the railroad tracks separating south Buchanan from the more prosperous parts of the city, Ivy jumps in to help and ends up being recruited as a volunteer. Polish immigrant Nela and black (“Negro”) teenager Addie are going door-to-door in search of influenza victims stuck in their homes in Southside Buchanan. Instead of taking them to Polish Hall – an under-equipped, understaffed holding place for poor, first-generation immigrant and African-American influenza victims – they instead transport them to Nela’s house for more intimate care.

Winters makes clear that there’s a stark racial, ethnic, and class divide evident in the care different patients received; for example, Ivy notes with horror the personal house calls she received from her own physician when she was struck with the flu several weeks previous. Meanwhile, one lone doctor is ministering to hundreds of patients at Polish Hall, assisted only by twelve-year-old Girl Scouts.

One of the patients they rescue from Polish Hall is Benjie, a young black man whose father was the only doctor in Southside – until he volunteered to serve in the war. Insult, meet injury.

I also adore the emphasis on music; its potential to unite, transform, and transcend. The dances at the Masonic Lodge offer a respite from the despair and suffering. There, an integrated jazz bands lets loose every night. When Ivy asks if Daniel – a guitarist – would be welcome to play with them, the pianist notes with a grin that their drummer, Ernest Ford, is half black, half German – and one hundred percent American jazz. Herself a piano teacher, she and Daniel discover a common bond in their love of music.

I read a lot of Holocaust literature, but novels set in WWI are a little harder to come by. Likewise, while many American can tell you about the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, I never even considered that a similar fate might have befell German-Americans several decades prior. (Though I can’t say it comes as a surprise. Again to quote Daniel: “America has no right sailing to foreign lands in the name of protecting freedom – not when we’re steeped in the mire of violent inequity here at home.”) The Uninvited does what the very best historical fiction manages to do: inspired me to learn more about the events touched upon in the story.

I’d say the same of the 1918 Influenza, but it was already a topic of great interest to me. Along with the author’s stellar rep, it was the Spanish Flu angle that really grabbed my attention and made me want to pick up this book.

I have so many more thoughts (AND FEELINGS!) about The Uninvited, I could go on for hours. But I won’t do that to you!

Instead, I will recommend The Uninvited to: fans of historical fiction; those obsessed with epidemics, both contemporary and historical; those who love a good supernatural romance – sexy more than scary; readers who like a moderate dose of SJ with their entertainment. And everyone/anyone who craves a twisty turny, skillfully written ghost story.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Yes. While MC Ivy Rowan is considered “white,” she has some Native American ancestry: “We [Rowans] were known for our golden-brown eyes, freckled cheeks, and prominent cheekbones, supposedly inherited from an Iroquois great-grandmother whom no one ever talked about.” Ivy’s father is abusive and possibly alcoholic, and once hit her younger brother Billy over the head with a shovel for horsing around during chores. At story’s outset, Frank and Ivy’s youngest brother Peter, have just killed a man – Wilhlem Daniel Schendel, a German immigrant and one of the last remaining German businessmen left in Buchanan, Illinois during the height of anti-German sentiment fueled by WWI.

While the author explores anti-German sentiment and policies in detail, other forms of bigotry and prejudice are put under the microscope as well. As WWI rages abroad, the so-called Spanish Influenza rips through America (and the world). When she encounters a Red Cross transport vehicle stalled on the railroad tracks separating south Buchanan from the more prosperous parts of the city, Ivy jumps in to help and ends up being recruited as a volunteer. Polish immigrant Nela and black, 17-year-old Addie are going door-to-door in search of influenza victims stuck in their homes in Southside. Instead of taking them to Polish Hall – an under-equipped, understaffed holding place for the “less desirable” influenza victims (immigrants of Polish, Russian, and Romanian, descent; African-Americans) – they instead transport them to Nela’s house for more intimate care.

Winters makes clear that there’s a stark racial, ethnic, and class divide evident in the care different patients received; for example, Ivy notes with horror the personal house calls she received from her own physician when she was struck with the flu several weeks previous. Meanwhile, one lone doctor is ministering to hundreds of patients at Polish Hall, assisted only by twelve-year-old Girl Scouts.

One of the patients they rescue from Polish Hall is Benjie, a young black man whose father was the only doctor in Southside – until he volunteered to serve in the war.

The dances at the Masonic Lodge offer a respite from the despair and suffering. There, an integrated jazz bands lets loose every night. When Ivy asks if Daniel – a guitarist – would be welcome to play with them, the pianist notes with a grin that their drummer, Ernest Ford, is half black, half German – and one hundred percent American jazz.

The Uninvited has a strong, socially conscious backbone and explores issues of sexism, racism, xenophobia, and othering in detail. Since it’s historical fiction, many of the details – Fort Oglethorpe, the Prager lynching in Collinsville, the American Protective League, Alien Registration Cards, even bans on German music and language – are based on or inspired by true events.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really. Sigrid has a three-legged Spaniel named Knut who “she had saved from her parents’ house when her father wanted to shoot it for being a cripple.”

 

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