Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio (Plume; 320 pages; $15).
Blackberry Winter, the new novel from Sarah Jio, author of The Violets of March and The Bungalow, is the October She Reads Book Club Selection. You can discuss the book, comment on reviews, meet Jio, and find out how she came up with the premise of the story by going to the She Reads web site. There are some yummy giveaways you don’t want to miss either!
Jio is a novelist who knows how to pull at her readers’ heartstrings. She draws you into a story, and, suddenly, you forget everything else around you. The rest of the world falls away; you are immersed in Jio’s world. That is how it was for me when I read her two previous novels. Jio is back, and she has not lost her gift. In fact, Blackberry Winter is now my favorite of her works. Blackberry Winter is a mystery/love story with appealing characters, a strong plot, and a setting Jio knows well: Seattle, her home.
In Blackberry Winter, Jio focuses her narrative lens on two women, born decades apart, who have experienced deep loss and heartache. Vera Ray trudges home to her three-year-old beloved son, Daniel, early one May morning in 1933. Vera is struggling to make ends meet in the midst of the Great Depression. Fresh from her shift at Seattle’s Olympic Hotel, she steps out the door to a late-season snowstorm, or “blackberry winter” as it was once referred to. To her horror, Daniel is nowhere to be found. More horrible still: no one seems to want to help her find her son.
Fast-forward to present-day Seattle and to Claire Aldridge, a reporter for the Seattle Herald. Her boss assigns Claire to cover their own blackberry winter. Like Vera, Claire is struggling. She recently suffered a terrible accident and endured the death of her baby. Her marriage is falling apart. She is unhappy to be given such a fluff piece and searches for an angle. When she discovers Daniel’s disappearance, Claire is intrigued; she has her story.
In alternating chapters Jio tells the story chiefly from the first-person perspectives of Vera and Claire. The “I” definitely made the novel more intimate. I do not think Blackberry Winter would have had as much of an effect on me if Jio had told the story in the third person.
Initially, I was no fan of Vera’s. I detested her inaction. She is a woman who does not act; rather, she waits for other people, namely men, to act. I wanted to shake her. The more Jio delved into Vera’s character, though, the more I came to understand her. Vera lived in the 1930s, during a time of economic crisis much worse than our own. As a single mother, she had to work; she had no other choice. Yet, many scorned her for working. Upper-class women looked at her with contempt. But they didn’t have to walk in Vera’s shoes, riddled with holes. Vera’s story is truly a tragic tale and reminded me of the 2008 movie The Changeling, based on actual events. In 1928 Los Angeles, a woman was reunited with her son who had been missing. When she adamantly told the authorities that the boy was not her son, they vilified her and deemed her an unfit mother.
Claire, for me, was the star of this story. I loved her spunk and her drive. She really is Jio’s most likeable, relatable character.
Jio brings her dual time narratives together in the end for a very satisfying conclusion. What she writes is unexpected, yet always plausible. Once you start reading, you will want to finish this in one sitting. The story is engaging; the characters are compelling; the setting is timely. Jio’s themes of maternal love, loss, jealousy, redemption, hope, and healing will resonate with readers.
Blackberry Winter is a well-timed, beautifully told story from one of the masters of the dual time narrative. I highly recommend it for fans of Sarah McCoy, Lucinda Riley, Kate Morton, Jenna Blum, and Tatiana de Rosnay.