Whenever I fall in love with a new book, I immediately Google the author to read their backstory. It sort of follows along with my obsession with learning where book ideas come from – I love hearing about the author’s “big break,” learning whether they’ve written any other books and discovering what they have planned for the future. The latest search began after reading Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio. I was very inspired by her bio and I think you will be, too. Her professional story includes magazine writing, health and fitness blogging and, of course, publishing novels, with four books under her belt and more on the way. There is also a love of food thrown into the mix, which she now pairs with books in blog posts that I practically want to devour.
And doesn’t a book with a title like Blackberry Winter just feel like it’s waiting to be plucked off the shelf? After reading rave reviews from Gina and Jenna, I knew I had to add it to my list. I then proceeded to finish it in less than 24 hours.
This novel tells the stories of two women living in different eras – one in 1933 and one in present day (2010). Both live in Seattle, and both experience an unforeseen snowstorm in May as the book opens, a cold weather phenomenon known as a “blackberry winter.” In 1933, a single mom named Vera Ray tucks her young son Daniel into bed before leaving to work the night shift at a hotel. When she returns, she discovers not only the snowstorm, but also that her son has disappeared. She runs back out into the storm to search for him, but the only trace she can find is his teddy bear in an icy street – the snow has covered up the tracks of both her son and the person who took him.
In 2010, Claire Aldridge is a reporter for the Seattle Herald who is assigned to cover their own blackberry winter and its twin from 1933. As she begins to research what happened last time, she learns about an unsolved abduction and works to find out what really happened. As the mystery begins to unravel, Claire realizes that she is connected to Vera, albeit in a very unexpected way. Read this book if you enjoy a suspenseful plot that will keep you guessing from start to finish. It explores the power of the relationship between mother and son, as well as a determination in both women – Vera and Claire – to seek justice on Daniel’s behalf.
One of the great things about this novel is that it’s a little bit of everything – there is mystery, of course, but also historical fiction and romance. Sarah Jio creates a vivid picture of both 1933 and 2010 Seattle through her descriptions of the town, its buildings and its citizens. She also paints a heartbreaking image of Vera and what she had to go through as a single mom living in the Depression era. She couldn’t find someone to watch her son while she went to work, and so she was forced to leave Daniel alone in order to be able to provide for him and put food on the table.
After Daniel’s disappearance, Vera must also deal with the constraints of her time – the fact that a woman’s word was rarely taken over a man’s by police, for example. Xenophobia also plays a role when the townspeople accuse a man Vera thought she knew of a horrible crime, leading her to believe she no longer can know who to trust. As the clock continues to tick, Vera becomes increasingly desperate and resorts to measures she could never have endured otherwise, all for the sake of her son. It begs the question, how far would any mom go to protect her child, or to find that child if he or she went missing?
It can be hard to get the dual storyline told just right, especially when the stories take place in different years, but I thought Sarah Jio did an excellent job of not only creating an instant tie between Vera and Claire through Claire’s role as a reporter, but also demonstrating the effect of that bond as the novel progresses. Every new detail Claire discovers about Vera’s mystery causes her to take a step back and evaluate some of the issues going on in her own life, a trend that continues through the novels various twists and surprises.
At the same time, the book isn’t overly dramatic – sure, it’s a lucky coincidence that two unrelated women living decades apart are ultimately connected in some way, but the reader should expect that going in because otherwise the author would not have included both characters in the first place. I didn’t find it to be too predictable – if anything, my predictions were often wrong!
In the end, this book leaves the reader with a lot of questions. First and foremost is the one I mentioned above – how far would any mother (or father, for that matter) go to save a child? What would you be willing to do if it meant earning money to care for that child? How strong do the ties of family go? At what cost are family secrets kept, and who are they really protecting?
If the answers to any of these questions intrigue you, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Blackberry Winter. I look forward to reading more from Sarah Jio in the near future!
Have you read Blackberry Winter? If so, what did you think?