“Terror was a luxury. She couldn’t afford it now.”
Julie Guille first heard about the Blackbirder on the night Maxl died. As a French war refugee who is in the United States illegally, the last thing Julie wants is to catch the eye of an old acquaintance, especially a German. She agrees to dine with him only to avoid a scene. “She smiled at him. Her smile looked real. She had learned to form it that way.” That night Maxl tells her the amazing story of a pilot who smuggles refugees across the Mexican border, a man they call the Blackbirder.
When Maxl is stabbed to death in front of her apartment building, Julie knows she will be the prime suspect. Only one person can help her escape: the Blackbirder. To find him, she will have to make her way across a strange country, using the skills she learned in wartime France. With the FBI and the Gestapo on her trail, Julie will need every bit of her courage and intelligence if she hopes to survive.
The Blackbirder is a spectacular, tough-as-nails wartime noir, anchored by a relentless and capable heroine. Once a spoiled rich girl, Julie’s experiences in the French underground have turned her into a survival machine.
In normal times, under normal conditions, some of the things I’ve done would be really bad. Nor am I trying to excuse them. It’s only that when you are fighting for your life, and for the life of someone dear to you, you forget values. You do things you know are wrong because you must. No one dies easily.
It’s exhilarating to watch her work her way into and out of seemingly impossible situations, finding unexpected allies and equally surprising betrayals along the way. Julie herself, however, doesn’t feel even the slightest rush of adrenaline. Remaining alive is a job, nothing more. The only emotions left in her heart are hatred for the Nazis and love for her cousin Fran, who is imprisoned in a concentration camp. She must reach the Blackbirder so she can go to Fran and free him. Not only is The Blackbirder a rare female-led noir, the “damsel in distress” she seeks to rescue is a man.
A large chunk of the story involves Julie’s desperate flight from New York to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Hughes packs this section with wonderfully visceral, jittery details. Julie’s fear and exhaustion as she rides the subway all night, waiting for the bank and stores to open in the morning. The smell of blood on her gloves and purse, the smears of blood that seem impossible to get rid of. The clink of dishes at the automat—and the dirty looks from other patrons when Julie takes up a seat for too long. Exactly how much money she has, how much it all costs, why does it all cost so much? The relief of the moment, just a moment, when she feels “safe. A little bit safe for a little while.”
Safety is always a temporary condition for Julie, thanks in part to “the man in gray,” who will become her relentless pursuer. Along with a beetle-browed man Julie remembers from her evening with Maxl, he is always on her trail. Whether these men are working together or separately, representing the Gestapo or the FBI, doesn’t matter much. Julie is nearly as afraid of the American government as she is of the Nazis—they have the power to arrest her as an illegal immigrant and shut down the Blackbirder, cutting off one of the few resources available to refugees.
The Gestapo didn’t remain dormant when prey escaped its bloody fists. It too would be hunting this American underground. It wasn’t an underground. It wasn’t moles burrowing through degradation for the promise of escape. It was clean and sharp, a bird’s talons snatching the harassed, the hopeless, cutting escape through infinity. Smuggling in the sky.
It doesn’t occur to her until later that other, less innocent passengers could also make use of such a service.
The United States is not an entirely peaceful refuge for Julie, who is always fearful of being deported back to war-torn Europe. Similarly, the Native Americans who live around Santa Fe, though they have more right than anyone to be in the United States, are made to feel unwelcome. A Tesuque Indian family risks danger to help Julie, and she spends a day disguised as a member of the family, hidden in plain sight from her pursuers. This day proves exhausting. Julie cannot access her hotel room or eat in a cafe; Indians are not welcome in local businesses. Even the bus station asks her to leave. Finally, in defeat, she retreats to the truck where most of the other Indian women have remained. They already know what she has just discovered. This disguise at first seems to offer freedom, but Julie learns that even a fugitive is more free than a Native American.
The Blackbirder is a powerful and intelligent espionage thriller that allows a few beams of hopeful light to pierce its darkness. As Julie passes from one adventure to another, meeting all sorts of people along the way, she slowly begins to regain her faith in people. Will this help her in the climactic encounter with the Blackbirder, or will it hold her back from doing what she must? However this battle turns out, the war continues. There is no rest for anyone at such a time, nor is it needed. Finally face to face with the enemy, Julie “wasn’t tired now and she wasn’t afraid. She didn’t look the same. She had the courage needed for what must be done.”
Julie Guille is a brilliant heroine, resourceful and tough, she’s believable, and feminine without ever using her sexuality to get what she wants. The Blackbirder is a fantastic page turner, very well written with locations every bit as fascinating as the characters I was really rather sorry when it was over.
I would have liked this better if the paranoia had been taken down a peg or two, and if there hadn’t been quite so many plot twists. Not knowing which side someone is on is one thing, but there are too many contradictory explanations from the author and far, far, to many coincidences for me to enjoy the whole thing at face value.
The Blackbirder was recently reprinted in the US by the Feminist Press. That reissue is no longer in print, but used copies are widely available. A Nook ebook is available, and this title is also readable online via HathiTrust
In the UK, a paperback edition is published by Vintage.