The Ghosts of World War I

The Uninvited: A Novel, by Cat Winters, (William Morrow Paperbacks), 368 pages, release date 11 August, 2015

The women in Ivy Rowan’s family have an unusual gift: they can see “the univited.” Before a death, other friends or family members who’ve died appear to them. Ivy explains: “I likely don’t need to mention that these Uninvited Guests were not welcome sights. My mother saw them, too, and she agreed that such visits always signaled loss. Their presence suggested that the wall dividing the living and the dead had opened a crack.”

Ivy lives at a time when death is ever-present. America has entered World War I, Ivy’s older brother has already died in the conflict, and now the influenza pandemic is sweeping through their town. Other kinds of deaths and violence are occurring as well: German-Americans are being attacked, sometimes lynched; German-sounding street names are changed to more palatable English versions; playing Beethoven is seen as sympathizing with the enemy; neighbors spy on and are eager to report one another.

Ivy is connected to one of these violent deaths. In a fit of drunken rage, her father and younger brother have killed one of a pair of German-American brothers who own the local furniture shop. Ivy is left devastated, wanting to atone for this death, but not knowing how to do so. She leaves the family farm, moves into town, takes a room in the house of a war widow, then goes to the furniture store, offering to help the surviving brother, Daniel, scrub away the blood stains.

Her offer of help is unwelcome, but Ivy and Daniel come to rely on one another in their shared, if very different, pain. They listen to the jazz music playing in the Masonic Hall across the street as they lie in one another’s arms.

In the evenings, Ivy drives a Red Cross ambulance on the “wrong side” of town. Blacks and immigrants are unwelcome in the overwhelmed local hospital. Instead, Ivy and her companions deliver them to a local community hall or private homes, where they receive the minimal care available.

It’s not surprising that in this environment Ivy frequently sees the Uninvited. And each time she sees them, she wonders what new death they presage.

The Univited is a fascinating read with its combination of real-world history and the supernatural. It will keep you reading long past bedtime, and the ending will both surprise and hearten you.

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