The Virgin of Small Plains, by Nancy Pickard

Through swirling snow Abby Reynolds catches sight of her elderly neighbor, Nadine Newquist , struggling through drifts on the old cemetery road, dressed only in a deep rose bathrobe. Abby brakes, which sends her old truck into a spin and then long skid, backwards towards town, picking up speed and making her stomach drop as if on a roller coaster, back the way she’d come, backwards in time.

And we’re off. Pickard’s story of small town lives, the tangled life-long friendships, the secrets and lies, careens on with the reader, breathless, racing to keep up.

Abby owns a small Lawn & Landscape business outside the Kansas town of Small Plains. Nadine is the mother of Abby’s long-lost love, Mitch, who left without a word seventeen years earlier, on the frigid January night a teenaged girl was found murdered. The girl was never identified, and the town buried her. Since then, some people have claimed miraculous and healing powers for the girl they call the Virgin of Small Plains.

The story moves around in time, taking us back to that night when everything changed and then into the present again with the search for Nadine. Abby’s best friend, Rex, the sheriff, son of the former sheriff, watches with dismay as Abby seems to have settled into a relationship with his brother, Patrick, the town’s bad boy. Mitch debates whether to return to his hometown.

I wanted to study this book, which was recommended to me as one that compelled you to turn the pages, one that got a grip on you and wouldn’t let you go. I wondered how that could work without car chases and ticking clocks, but I certainly wasn’t going to find out, not on that first read anyway. No, I just wanted to pry out all the secrets and understand, not just what had happened, but why.

Only when I finished was I able to go back and find some of Pickard’s techniques. There are many truly wonderful scenes, set pieces almost, that call out our own memories, making us sympathise with the characters. There are mysterious moments, like the woman in the rose bathrobe in the snow, that make us read on to find out the story behind them—why was she there? Pickard expertly withholds information until you can’t bear for her not to reveal it. Even if you guess at some of what happened, you want to know why. Plus she’s not afraid to go big: often novels seem to drag a bit in the middle as authors save their good stuff for the climax, but Pickard doesn’t hesitate to throw it all at us, and then do it again.

There are flaws to the book, though I could only see them in retrospect. The multiple points of view, many of them unnecessary to the story, keep the characters at arm’s length. I discussed this book in two different book clubs and both were unable to decide who the main character was. I went with Abby because she was the first person we met, but a strong case could be made for Rex, Mitch and a couple of others. After the mesmerizing first part of the book, the plot seemed to take over and characters relegated to the back seat.

We also struggled with genre. The story has some elements of a mystery, a romance, and even magical realism. It includes some of the conventions of each, but not enough of any one to satisfy expectations. I settled for calling it a small-town drama. It probably says more about me than the book, but I interpreted all the supposedly magical elements as realistic, somewhat unlikely but not outside the bounds of possibility. I love out-and-out magical realism like Borges, Marquez and Allende write, but this kind of teasing maybe-it-is-maybe-it-isn’t didn’t work for me.

The ending disappointed almost everyone, with things tied up a little too neatly, a little too quickly and conveniently.

Still, the book is a wonder. Pickard captures the Kansas landscape, its weather and prairie flowers. She also captures the rhythms and relationships of small-town life—or so I am assured, being a city girl myself. Used to relative anonymity, I have trouble imagining the comfort and claustrophobia of a small town where everyone knows, not just your name and everything you’ve ever done, but your parents and theirs before them.

I never fail to be fascinated by the damage caused by secrets and lies. Perhaps they are even harder to avoid in a small community. Most of all, though, I was fascinated by the way people elevated the unknown, murdered girl into some kind of saint. I remember visiting Althorp, where Princess Diana is buried, and being shocked by the busloads of sick and injured people who expected her to heal them. One of my friends said that desperate people look for solace anywhere they can. She added that when you know nothing about someone, you can attribute any qualities to them—something we’ve seen happen all too often with celebrities and athletes.

Have you read a book recently that you could not put down?

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