If you read and loved the novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford, there’s a very good chance that you’ll feel the same way about Sarah Jio’s new novel, Blackberry Winter. Like Ford’s bestseller, Blackberry Winter is set in Seattle and involves current-day characters looking back at things that happened decades earlier. And it just so happens that a hotel serves as a key stage prop in both of these imaginative tales.
Blackberry Winter begins in May of 1933 when the city of Seattle is hit with an unexpected snowstorm. Vera Ray, a hard-working and nearly destitute mother, leaves her three-year-old son Daniel alone in their hardscrabble apartment as she heads for a night shift of cleaning rooms at the Olympic Hotel. When she returns the next morning, the apartment is empty. The only thing she finds, in a mad search for Daniel, is his abandoned teddy bear, in the snow behind the apartment complex. She will never see her son again.
Flash forward to present-day Seattle, where Claire Aldridge is working for the Seattle Herald as a reporter writing feature stories. A late-season storm has hit the Emerald City in May. Claire’s editor wants her to write a 5,000-word article about the similarities between this rare “Blackberry Winter” storm and the one that hit in 1933. Claire, who is recovering from the loss of a child of her own, has just one week to complete this assignment. The time frame may not be acceptable; however, Claire is married to the newspaper publisher’s son, so she’s likely to be given some leeway on this otherwise strict deadline.
Claire spends each morning at a locally-run coffee shop, not realizing that in 1933 the space was used as a Prohibition-era tavern and the floors above it were occupied as apartments. Vera Ray and her son lived in one of these apartments. As Claire proceeds to investigate the story of the boy’s disappearance–and it comes to dominate her life for the next few days–she finds that she and the late Vera Ray may have more than a few things in common. She also discovers that Vera, who supposedly drowned not long after her son’s abduction, may have been murdered.
The death of the lower-class (and supposedly scandalous) Vera Ray has been a closed case for decades and Claire may be the only person with the connections to re-open it. But the more she follows the clues, the more she becomes aware that someone at the top of Seattle’s powerful social circle wants the case to remain closed. Will Claire press forward to find the truth for Vera Ray and Daniel even if it threatens her career?
Jio writes in such an engrossing style (as she did in her first novel The Violets of March) that you may rush through the story in a single day, as this reader did. As with her initial book, Jio leads us to a conclusion that, while fully unexpected, is completely logical. Yes, there are villains in this story, but Jio does her best to restore our faith in the best of human nature.