The Virgin of Small Plains: A Novel, I think it would be 'Wow!' Released in 2006 by Nancy Pickard, I can easily see why this book spent some time on the New York Times bestseller list. It also won the following awards: Reader's Choice, Agatha, Macavity, A "Killer Book" (by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association), and Kansas Reads Book of the Year (2009); and was nominated for: the Edgar Award and the Dillys Award.
I happen to be lucky enough to have met Ms. Pickard several times in the last few years, including shortly after Virgin was released, however, it wasn't until this spring I picked up this book, though I'd read several of her popular Jenny Cain series over a decade ago. Ms. Pickard happens to be quite involved in one of the local Sisters in Crime chapters in Kansas City, and is a founding member of the organization, as well as a past president. That in and of itself should make the average mystery reader sit up and take note. However, I truly have to say that you are missing out if you don't take a chance and read this book--whether you love mysteries or not. For any writer, there are elements that can be learned.
First, an overview. This story is told from multiple 3rd persons views, and also utilizes multiple flashbacks to tell the story from 17 years prior. While I don't usually read this format, it's not unheard of, and I found it easy to keep up, though I was usually waiting none-too-patiently for either of who I felt were the three stars of the book: Abby, Mitch (who didn't really come on stage until past the 100 page mark, at least not in the more recent time frame), and Rex. In the 1986 & 1987 sequences, the three lead characters are teenagers. In 1987, Rex, his older brother, and father (the sheriff) discover a frozen, bloodied girl in their pasture during a major snowstorm.
Mitch, the same night, is with Abby, at her parents' house. While sneaking down to get 'protection' from Abby's dad's office (who's a doctor), Mitch sees the sheriff and Abby's dad mutilate the dead woman's face. The next morning, Mitch's mom and dad (a powerful judge) whisk him out of town, leaving Abby and the rest of his friends with no explanation. For the next 17 years, different theories in the town of Small Plains abound about what Mitch did that made him disappear so abruptly, especially since the Virgin (as the murdered girl is referred to) was found that same night.
Even Mitch doesn't know entirely why he was whisked away. Seventeen years later, after his mother died, Mitch decides to come back to put the past to rest. At the same time, Abby, who's overheard Rex's mother talking to 'The Virgin' about what had happened, gets curious and starts asking questions around town about what they remember about the time surrounding the discovery of the girl. Which, in my mind, juxtaposes Abby and Mitch perfectly to come together again.
What I loved:
This book is set in the fictional town of Small Plains, Kansas which sits in the fictional county of Muncie. However, I know pretty well where this is 'supposed' to be since I grew up not far from the towns and other counties that are actually there. Okay, Kansas-girl aside, I love the fact that this book is set in the Flint Hills of Kansas. Ms. Pickard beautifully describes the Hills--to the point that I could envision my many travels at dusk and dawn through them at various times of the year. It brought tears to my eyes more than once. Nancy makes the Hills a character in this book--from the snowstorms, to the gusty winds, to the violence of a tornado, as well as the history of the Kansa Indians that once roamed the area, chasing bison.
Small Plains reminds me a lot of the town I grew up in, though bigger. I loved that since I could identify so well with how everyone knows everyone else's business, yet some of the most important things are twisted forms of the truth, or nowhere near truth at all.
The human characters are as well drawn as the place in which they live. I loved Abby immediately--she is a lot like me in some ways, different in others, but I think I fell in love with her because she suffered so much when Mitch left, and never knew why he'd left her, why he never called or even wrote. I could identify with that, not so much because I've experienced that (I haven't), but because my own character, Amanda, suffered in a similar way when her fiancé died.
While I did like Abby the best, the other characters--good and bad--were well characterized. You immediately hate Nadine (Mitch's mom) when she tells Abby that Mitch left because of her--so he wouldn't be tethered to the small town because Abby got pregnant (which the couple hadn't ever had the opportunity to!) You're never quite sure what to make of Mitch's dad, and you're constantly kept on your toes about what the townsfolk know, what they're hiding, and what they suspect. Rex, who takes over as sheriff after his dad retires, it's slowly revealed knew the murdered victim, and you're never quite sure how much he knows about her until the very end of the book.
What I disliked:
I really can't think of anything I honestly didn't like about this book, except a few of the characters, or the fact it took so long for Abby and Mitch to get back together--or even see each other. The one thing I was disappointed in, and this is probably more me picking up on things a lot sooner than I used to, was I did finger the Virgin's murderer relatively early on, though there was enough doubt brought in after that I wasn't 100% certain all the time.
There was also a long series of scenes where a tornadic storm is approaching Small Plains. This is shown from multiple points of view. What made me dislike this series of scenes is that one scene with Mitch, prior to the storm, interrupts the series, and while what he does is important to the overall story, if it were me, I'd have moved this earlier in the book, then pick up with him again at the same point when the storm actually approaches and he first goes to see if Abby's place is okay (and subsequently, Abby), then goes into town to help the townsfolk he hasn't seen in almost two decades clean up from the damage.
The mystery in this book was well drawn out. Ms. Pickard does a fabulous job of giving you enough information in one scene to either have you completely off balance, not sure what's happening, or to have you thinking for sure that X is what's going on, but the next scene has you thinking it's Y. Enough of the backstory was sprinkled in over the course of the book that it left you second-guessing what was happening in the 2004 time-line.
I'd heartily recommend this book to the mystery-lover and the non-mystery-lover alike. While it may not be for everyone, it's definitely engaging... and I could see it being made into a movie (please!--I know a few perfect little towns in the region that would be perfect to play Small Plains!)
What this book made me learn:
I think the most important thing I've learned from this book is how to utilize description effectively, but also to use setting effectively, to the point it can be its own character. (If memory serves, I believe Donald Maass' book that I reviewed in December used elements of Virgin to illustrate this very thing--reading the entire book only heightened my awareness.) While not all books are ideal for this, Virgin was and I truly felt that anyone who hadn't had the pleasure of visiting the Flint Hills region would be able to picture it. Infusing the love of the land was something that made the descriptions sing in this book.
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