Book Review: Blackberry Winter
By: Sarah Jio
Published By: Plume
Publication Date: September 2012
Page Count: 288
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
Audience: Adult - Historical Fiction, Contemporary
Sarah Jio is one of my favorite writers. Her novels are always a treat. I love the way she flawlessly blends together rich historical details, contemporary heroines, and intriguing mysteries. Blackberry Winter is perhaps the most emotional of Jio's novels due to the subject matter. I shed a few tears as I devoured this novel in one sitting. Curling up in bed with this novel was a wonderful way to spend a sick day.
Blackberry Winter tells the story of two women living in Seattle decades apart: Vera, a single mother struggling to make ends meet, lives in the 1930's and Claire, a reporter struggling to manage her grief, lives in the present day. Jio does a beautiful job of telling the story of both women through alternating chapters. I enjoyed trying to piece together how the past would link to the future. There were some elements that I found to be easy to predict while others kept me guessing until the final chapters. The mystery in this one, while interesting, wasn't what kept me turning the pages. I was invested in Claire's story; I needed to know that she was going to be okay before I could set this one aside. I felt a kinship with Claire and saw many of my own hopes and struggles reflected within her.
It's no secret that I am a lover of the Pacific Northwest. After living in Seattle for two years, I don't think I will ever get the raindrops and coffee grains out of my veins. Since I no longer live there, I find that losing myself in fiction set in the Pacific Northwest helps to ease the ache of longing that I experience from time to time. Nobody brings the magic of Washington State alive better than Sarah Jio.
I loved that Blackberry Winter not only showcased the gems of Seattle, but there is also a brief moment or two on Bainbridge Island, the setting of The Violets of March. I also loved that while this story is not linked directly to Jio's previous novels, I did get to see some old friends. Emily, Jack, and Bee all make small appearances. It was so nice to see them again and to know how their lives are progressing. I love hunting for those tiny threads that link Jio's novels together.
In addition to the character cameos, I also love the plants that seem to influence Jio's work. In Blackberry Winter, Claire learns about the special nature of the plant while mourning at a grave. The cemetery caretaker remarks, "We grave minders have long believed in the legend of the blackberry ... They choose souls to protect. The special ones." (pg. 254). The inclusion of this tiny piece of plant lore adds a pinch of magical realism. Researching plant symbolism and lore has become a hobby of mine after spending time with Jio's work. I hope to see more of this aspect in her future novels.
At this point, I don't think Jio could write a novel I wouldn't enjoy. There is just something about her writing that captures my imagination and transports me into the narrative. Reading her novels is truly an experience and not just mere entertainment. Her descriptions are full of rich details and her prose is littered with beautiful language. Jio also amazes me with her ability to flawlessly combine historical and modern characters. I love watching as the past impacts the present.
One Last Gripe: There were a few typos in the book. This wasn't a huge deal, but I did find it somewhat irksome.
My Favorite Thing About The Book: Claire tracking down the clues to find Daniel
First Sentence: An icy wind seeped through the floorboards and I shivered, pulling my gray wool sweater tighter around myself.
Favorite Character: Claire
Least Favorite Character: Cassandra
Seattle, 1933. Single mother Vera Ray kisses her three-year-old son, Daniel, goodnight and departs to work the night-shift at a local hotel. She emerges to discover that a May-Day snow has blanketed the city, and that her son has vanished. Outside, she finds his beloved teddy bear lying face-down on an icy street, the snow covering up any trace of his tracks, or the perpetrator's.
Seattle, 2010. Seattle Herald reporter Claire Aldridge, assigned to cover the May 1 "blackberry winter" storm and its twin, learns of the unsolved abduction and vows to unearth the truth. In the process, she finds that she and Vera may be linked in unexpected ways...