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VIRGIN OF THE PLAINS
By Nancy Pickard
Ballantine, 2006 ($23.95) Hardcover
Reviewed by Shirley H. Wetzel
Small Plains, Kansas, January 23, 1987. During a terrible blizzard, a teenage boy and his father, the sheriff, find the body of a beautiful young woman naked in the snow. Another teenager, son of the local judge, witnesses something terrible involving the girl and two of the town's most trusted citizens, and when he tells his father what he saw, he is quickly whisked away from his life and his love, feeling so betrayed that he vows never to return to Small Plains. Mitch Newquist's disappearance leaves his best friend, Rex Shellenberger, and his high school sweetheart, Abby Reynolds, feeling bewildered and abandoned. No one in the town recognizes the girl, no one claims her, so the townsfolk give her a proper funeral and bury her in the town cemetery. Over time, several people who come to visit her grave are miraculously healed. Locals start calling her the Virgin, and she is given in death the honor she never found in life. Some wounds, however, are too deep to be healed, especially for those involved in finding and dealing with her body. For the three families involved, life is never the same.
On January 23, 2004, Mrs. Newquist, suffering from Alzheimer's, dies after wandering out into another snowstorm and Mitch decides it's time to come home again. He sets up camp in an abandoned ranch house, planning to take revenge on the men whose actions had set him on the run. For Abby, the death of Mrs. Newquist brings back memories of the death of the young girl, still unclaimed after seventeen years. Abby has a softness for underdogs: the Indians driven off the land, millions of buffalo slaughtered, and people who haven't had a fair shake in life. She couldn't help the Indians or the buffalo, but perhaps, she decides, she can give the Virgin back her name and identity. There are still those in town who have a vested interest in making sure Abby does not succeed. Mitch's return and Abby's quest set in motion a train of events that may lead either to disaster or redemption for all those involved.
Pickard returns to her Midwestern roots in this stand alone, which is much different than her Jenny Crain mysteries, more somber and powerful. In a recent interview in Publishers Weekly, she says that she has always wanted to write a book that has a "full, novelistic feel," combining mystery, romance, and a little touch of magic, with characters whose roots go deep in the Midwestern soil. She has achieved her goal.
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