Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Review of "Blackberry Winter" by Sarah Jio

When a late spring snowstorm (called a blackberry winter) hits Seattle in May 2010, Claire Aldridge - a feature writer for the Seattle Herald - is asked to write a story comparing the whiteout to a similar event that occurred in May 1933. After researching the historical storm Claire decides to focus her article on Daniel Ray - a three-year-old boy who disppeared during the depression era snowfall.

Daniel's mother, Vera Ray, barely eked out a living as a maid at Seattle's Olympic Hotel. Unable to take Daniel along when she worked the night shift, Vera was forced to leave the sleeping child at home. On the night of May 1st, snow blanketed the city and - with public transportation out of commission - Vera trudged all the way home in the morning ---- to find Daniel gone. Distraught, Vera ran through the streets calling for Daniel - and asking pedestrians if they'd seen him - but all she found was the child's teddy bear.

Vera went to the police, but they were dismissive, suggesting that Daniel had run away. (Can you imagine. A three-year-old child?) Poverty-ridden and powerless, Vera had to look for Daniel herself. Things soon went from bad to worse when Vera was evicted from her apartment for inability to pay the rent and lost her job for taking too many days off (looking for Daniel). A wealthy resident of the Olympic Hotel offered to help Vera, but there were strings attached. (Ick!!)

The book has two alternating story lines: Claire's life in the present and Vera's life in the past.

We learn that Claire and her husband Ethan experienced a tragedy a year ago that put an enormous strain on their relationship. Both spouses are suffering but Claire is completely unable to get past the event, which haunts her. To add to the problem, Claire is annoyed that Ethan - the Seattle Herald's editor-in-chief - goes to restaurants with the newspaper's attractive food critic.....presumably as part of his job.

Claire has also become obsessed with discovering what happened to little Daniel, and her investigation takes her to various parts of the city. All this leads the reporter to spend too much time away from home; become overly friendly with a helpful (and handsome) café owner/barista; neglect an important family event; avoid Ethan's phone calls; and generally behave badly (IMO). It seems like Claire is on track to completely wreck her marriage.

In flashbacks to the past, we find that - before Daniel was born - Vera met a dashing blueblood named Charles, who swept her off her feet. Charles' family didn't approve of Vera, and predictable consequences ensued. The author paints a clear picture of Vera's destitute lifestyle: threadbare clothing; holes in her shoes; insufficient food; rough neighborhood; libidinous smelly landlord; and so on. It made me angry for Vera, who worked hard to make a home for herself and her son.... but was disrespected by 'rich people' and blown off by the police.

As Claire is researching young Daniel's disappearance she visits the Rays' old Seattle apartment and talks to people who remember the events of 1933. This leads to a series of serendipitous discoveries - photos, drawings, papers - that eventually reveal what happened to the child. As you might expect, the Claire and Vera story lines converge as the book approaches it climax.

For me this romantic suspense novel is overly contrived. Sarah Jio writes well, and a story about a missing child is always compelling. However, the book has far too many 'happy coincidences' and the fairy tale ending seems more like a Disney movie than real life. Still, fans of 'happily ever after' would probably love this book.

Rating: 3 stars

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