Virgin of Small Plains (Pickard)

The Virgin of Small Plains
Nancy Pickard, 2006
Random House
368 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780345471000

Small Plains, Kansas, January 23, 1987: In the midst of a deadly blizzard, eighteen-year-old Rex Shellenberger scours his father’s pasture, looking for helpless newborn calves. Then he makes a shocking discovery: the naked, frozen body of a teenage girl, her skin as white as the snow around her. Even dead, she is the most beautiful girl he’s ever seen.

It is a moment that will forever change his life and the lives of everyone around him. The mysterious dead girl—the “Virgin of Small Plains”—inspires local reverence. In the two decades following her death, strange miracles visit those who faithfully tend to her grave; some even believe that her spirit can cure deadly illnesses. Slowly, word of the legend spreads.

But what really happened in that snow-covered field? Why did young Mitch Newquist disappear the day after the Virgin’s body was found, leaving behind his distraught girlfriend, Abby Reynolds? Why do the town’s three most powerful men—Dr. Quentin Reynolds, former sheriff Nathan Shellenberger, and Judge, Tom Newquist—all seem to be hiding the details of that night?

Seventeen years later, when Mitch suddenly returns to Small Plains, simmering tensions come to a head, ghosts that had long slumbered whisper anew, and the secrets that some wish would stay buried rise again from the grave of the Virgin. Abby—never having resolved her feelings for Mitch—is now determined to uncover exactly what happened so many years ago to tear their lives apart.

Three families and three friends, their worlds inexorably altered in the course of one night, must confront the ever-unfolding consequences inaward-winning author Nancy Pickard’s remarkable novel of suspense. Wonderfully written and utterly absorbing, The Virgin of Small Plains is about the loss of faith, trust, and innocence...and the possibility of redemption. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Education—University of Missouri-Columbia
Awards—Anthony Award, Macavity Awards (5), Agatha
   Christie Award (4), Shamus Award
Currently—lives in Prairie Village, Kansas

Nancy Pickard is Nancy Pickard is the author of eighteen popular and critically acclaimed novels, including the Jenny Cain and Marie Lightfoot mystery series. She is also the author of The Virgin of Small Plains (2006). The Scent of Rain and Lightning is her most recent novel.

She has won the Anthony Award, two Macavity Awards, and two Agatha Awards for her novels. She is a three-time Edgar Award nominee, most recently for her first Marie Lightfoot mystery, The Whole Truth, which was a national bestseller. With Lynn Lott, Pickard co-authored Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path.

She has been a national board member of the Mystery Writers of America, as well as the president of Sisters in Crime. She lives in Prairie Village, Kansas (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews 
Nancy Pickard (the author of series novels based in the East) has set [her novel] in Kansas, where she lives. Making deft use of parallel time frames, Pickard writes with insight and compassion about an unresolved crime that continues to haunt a farming community. Burdened by its legacy of long-buried sins, the town of Small Plains hasn't been the same since 18-year-old Mitch Newquist was hustled out of the house by his father the judge in the middle of a blizzard.... Pickard draws out the truth with tantalizing suspense, while using the mystery to illuminate the ways a community would rather live in guilt and believe in miracles than give up its dark secrets.
Marilyn Stasio - New York Times

Nancy Pickard is acclaimed as one of today's best mystery writers. Mounting evidence suggests that this description is too limited. . .Pickard (is) one of today's best writers, period.
San Diego Union

Pickard (Storm Warnings) probes the truth behind miracles and the tragedies behind lies in this mesmerizing suspense novel set in Kansas. While rounding up newborn calves during a 1987 blizzard, Nathan Shellenberger, sheriff of Small Plains, and his teenage sons, Rex and Patrick, discover the naked frozen body of a beautiful teenage girl. Later, Nathan and Dr. Quentin "Doc" Reynolds bash the girl's face to an unrecognizable pulp, since they know who she is and fear that either Patrick or Rex's best friend, 17-year-old Mitch Newquist, is her killer. Witnessing this terrible scene is Mitch, hidden in Doc's home office supply closet where he's gone for a condom to use with Abby, Doc's 16-year-old daughter. Mitch's father, a judge, forces Mitch to leave town after the boy admits what he saw. In 2004, Abby and Rex-now the sheriff-find another blizzard victim, Mitch's mother, dead near the marker commemorating the still-unidentified "virgin." Readers may wish the author supplied more detail about the dead girl's background, but some cleverly planted surprises and the convincing portrait of smalltown life make this a memorable read.
Publishers Weekly

Cold case, indeed: a blizzard with too many parallels to a long-ago storm shocks 33-year-old Abby Reynolds into unraveling the mystery behind a 17-year-old homicide. The unidentified young woman found bloodied and naked in the snow has literally haunted the small Kansas town ever since, her unmarked grave emitting a miraculous glow. The secret begins to peel away when Abby realizes that the stories told about that night don't quite ring true. As she asks the people she loves to return to that time in 1987, Abby fears the murderer might be staring her in the face. Pickard's careful plotting builds slowly toward a climax, with the weather contributing to a sense of foreboding. Using flashbacks and multiple viewpoints, she provides an absorbing tale of love and deceit. This very readable standalone suspense novel, the first by popular mystery series author Pickard (Jenny Cain, Marie Lightfoot), will appeal to those who relished Martha Grimes's Hotel Paradise. Recommended for all popular fiction collections. —Teresa L. Jacobsen, Solano Cty. Lib., CA
Library Journal

Accomplished mystery writer Pickard (The Truth Hurts, 2002, etc.) skillfully exposes insidious elements in a small town. Two smitten teenagers in Small Plains, Kan., contemplate making love for the first time. Sent downstairs by girlfriend Abby Reynolds to fetch condoms from her doctor father's supply cabinet, Mitch Newquist instead secretly witnesses the brutal disfigurement of a dead girl's corpse by the respectable Dr. Reynolds. Mitch recognizes the girl as a local maid from another town. Being an honorable boy bound for college, he discloses what he has seen to his own father, the town judge. To the boy's amazement and growing bitterness, his parents cover up the incident, seeming to believe Dr. Reynold's lies about it, and send Mitch away the very next morning. Seventeen years later, Abby still lives in Small Plains and owns a tree service. Mitch's mother, Nadine, who suffers from Alzheimer's, dies of exposure in a snowstorm after running out in her nightgown to visit the grave of the maid who died so mysteriously. Locals call this unknown girl the Virgin of Small Plains, and her grave has become a shrine, attracting people from all over who believe in miraculous healing. The novel moves back and forth in time, from its present in 2004 to the definitive events of 17 years before. Among the players in the original drama who must now confront the damage it inflicted are the town sheriff and his two boys, who found the girl in the snow (they denied knowing her, although both boys were in love with her); and Abby and Mitch, torn from each other in the heat of young love. Pickard demonstrates an effective restraint with the material, so that when Mitch returns to the town for a reckoning, the shame of the town fathers leads to a satisfying denouement. A quietly fashioned, credible tale about the loss of innocence.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
(LitLovers Note: We have NO idea no idea why these questions are written in an "author-interview" format. Do the best you can with them.)

1. The Virgin of Small Plains is your eighteeenth novel, but the first you’ve set in your home state of Kansas. Why have you waited until now? What challenges presented themselves in writing about an area and community so close to home?

2. What inspired you to write this story? Was the genesis of The Virgin of Small Plains significantly different from the ideas that spawned your previous books?

3. What about the development of the novel? Did this book present any unique challenges?

4. The action shuttles back and forth in time, alternately charting the events that lead to and follow from the Virgin’s death in 1987 and the repercussions still simmering seventeen years later. Why did you choose to braid the two narratives in this way? Was it difficult to keep your timelines straight?

5. How carefully do you map the plots of your books before setting down to write? Do your characters sometimes surprise you?

6. Did you find it hard to adopt and sustain the perspectives and voices of multiple narrators in The Virgin of Small Plains? Were certain characters more readily accessible to you than others?

7. You really capture the rhythms of adolescent thought, from Rex’s sexual frustrations to Abby’s heartbreak. Did you base their travails on your own experiences? On those of anyone you know?

8. You never expressly tip your hat to divine intervention in The Virgin of Small Plains, but there are indications throughout the text that some higher power may be at play–even though the story carefully supplies more plausible explanations for seemingly extraordinary events. (Case in point: The climactic car crash, which evokes the clockwork precision of a deus ex machina but at the same time seems like an natural narrative development.) Do you believe in the supernatural or spiritual?

9. The subplot involving Catie Washington both complements and nicely counters the murder mystery at the heart of The Virgin of Small Plains. Did you specifically conceive this character and her story to vary the tone of the book, or did they evolve organically from the story?

10. The twister that dominates the central passage of the novel alters not only the town of Small Plains but also the shape of the action unfolding there: Abby sees Mitch again; Catie’s faith is providentially confirmed; and the reader is properly introduced to Jeff Newquist, a pivotal minor character. How did you hit upon the idea of this perfect storm, so to speak?

11. You’ve achieved success and acclaim as an author of mysteries. Have you always been interested in that genre?

12. How did you launch your career?

13. As many reviewers noted, The Virgin of Small Plains transcends the parameters of that genre. Do you feel that this book delves into new territory for you as a writer?

14. What are you working on next?

15. It must be asked: Have you ever experienced a tornado firsthand?
(Questions issued by found...sorry.)

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