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A Novel

Written by Nancy PickardAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Nancy Pickard

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On Sale: April 18, 2006
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-345-49372-9
Published by : Ballantine Books Ballantine Group
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Synopsis|Excerpt|Reader Reviews

Synopsis

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 in award-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 Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Chapter One

January 23, 2004

Abby Reynolds braked her truck on the icy highway, startled by what she imagined she saw off to the side of the road. That can’t be, she thought, as she squinted into the snow, trying to see more clearly. When the wind blew an opening in the blizzard, Abby realized that it was not a hallucination. It was not an impossible illusion sketched on the early morning air by the gusting snow. It was . . . good grief! . . . it was Nadine Newquist in a bathrobe, surrounded by swirling white, struggling through drifts on the old cemetery road, as if she were determined to visit a particular grave on this particular morning.

My God! It was Nadine: the judge’s wife, Mitch’s mom, Abby’s own late mother’s lifelong friend. It really was Nadine, a woman who was sixty-three years old and speeding toward early Alzheimer’s at about the same rate that Abby’s pickup truck was sliding sideways on Highway 177.

What the hell was Nadine doing out there?

She was all by herself, in a bathrobe, for God’s sake, in a blizzard . . .

Abby pumped her brakes with a light touch of her foot, didn’t slam on them like a fool, but her truck started to spin anyway, going round and round on the two-lane blacktop like a two-ton skater on ice.

She let her steering wheel alone, waiting for it to stop spinning before she touched it again. Coffee sloshed out of her lidless thermal cup in its holder by her knee; the smell of it filled the cab of her truck. She could still taste her last sip of it, along with the fruit and cereal she’d had for breakfast—all of which was now threatening to come back up her throat.

With a shudder, the truck came out of the spin and started slid- ing sideways again, skidding in a long diagonal across the yellow line into the eastbound lane. A heavy drift of snow slowed it down and changed the direction of the slide, until it was going backward. The skid went on and on, picking up speed as it backed into the crest of a rise, then dropped down again, taking the bottom of Abby’s stomach with it. And still the truck stayed on the pavement, hemmed in by snow, avoiding the shoulders, the deep culverts, the barbed wire fencing beyond. People thought Kansas was all flat, but it wasn’t, and especially not in the heart of the Flint Hills. The roads in this part of the state were long and straight, but they soared up and plunged down like curved ribbons of hard taffy.

Abby felt a wild hopeful moment of wondering if her truck could somehow manage to slide its way safely all the way back into town on the wrong side of the road. That would be a miracle. As she sat helplessly moving back the way she’d come, like a passenger on a roller coaster in reverse, she looked up the highway to the west, hoping not to see headlights coming at her. That way looked clear. In this strange, slow motion, made to feel even more eerie and timeless in the swirling snow, she felt as if she had all the time in the world before whatever was going to happen in the next few moments happened. She felt strangely calm, even curious about the possibility of crashing, but she didn’t feel calm about Nadine out there in the snow.

She grabbed her cell phone from the seat beside her.

In the uncanny suspension of time, as her truck drew two long parallel lines in the snow on the highway, Abby realized she might be able to get out of her seat belt, throw open her door, and dive out. But if she did, what if her cell phone broke in her fall, or she hurt herself too badly to call for help? Then nobody would know about Nadine. Mitch’s mom could fall out there in the cemetery, be covered by snow, she could die . . .

If I don’t jump, I’ll crash with the truck.

Nadine . . .

Heart pounding, stomach queasy, no longer feeling calm about anything, Abby gave up the idea of trying to jump to save herself. Instead, she punched in the single digit that called the Sheriff’s cell phone. It was on auto-dial, because Rex Shellenberger was as long and close a friend to her as Nadine had been to both of their mothers, as close as Mitch had been to Rex and Abby, once upon a happy time, a long time ago.

“Sheriff Shellenberger,” he said, calm as toast. But it was his recorded message. It went straight from those two words to the beep, wasting no time for people in emergencies.

“Rex! It’s Abby! Nadine Newquist is wandering in the snow in the cemetery. Come help me get her out of there and take her home!”

She felt the truck veer left, and then felt it in her back and bottom first as the ride got rough and the rear tires slid onto gravel underneath snow.

Her roller-coaster ride, her trip back through time, was almost over.

Nobody would believe she had traveled so far on ice without crashing, Abby thought as the ride got rougher.

Panicked thoughts flashed through her brain, images without words. Should she call Nadine’s husband, Tom? No, the judge was a notoriously bad driver in the best of weather, and a veritable menace at the first hint of moisture on the roads. Everybody knew that. Nobody with any sense ever consented to step into a car if Judge Tom Newquist was driving it, especially if it was raining, snowing, or sleeting. She’d only get him—or somebody else—killed if she called him out in this storm.

Frightened, Abby looked out the windshield just before it tilted up toward the sky.

In that split second, she glimpsed Mitch’s mom again. Nadine’s bathrobe was a tiny slash of deep rose on white, a hothouse flower inexplicably set outside on a winter’s day. Abby knew the robe was expensive, soft and silky to the touch. She’d seen Nadine wearing it a lot lately, because she insisted on spending her days and nights in lingerie. It hardly mattered, since she didn’t seem to be able to distinguish night from day anymore. When the judge or the nursing attendants he hired to watch her tried to get her into other clothes, she fought them. Abby knew the robe was made of thin material. The body under it was also thin, with hardly an ounce of fat to protect Nadine from the fierce cold that wrapped around her now.

At sixty miles an hour, Abby’s truck hit the far side of the cement culvert with a crash that telescoped the exhaust pipes, flattened half of the metal bed, tore through the transmission, ripped out the gears, and shut the engine off. It was a ten-year-old truck with no air bags. Her seat belt saved her from being thrown into her windshield, but not from being slammed sideways into the window.


From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

Thanks so much for the copy of THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS. You were personally responsible for the fact that I got nothing done for a whole day other than reading and occasional sustenance. I loved the book and am recommending it to all members of the HBBC (Hot Broads Book Club). Thanks for a full day of fun reading! - Bettye Aboud

I received a copy of THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS and loved it!  I have already recommended it to a stranger I met in the library!  It is well-written and I will look for more books by this author.  I could picture the movie as I read.  Good read. - Deborah M. Johnson

Thank you so much for the complimentary copy of THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS.  I read Nancy Pickard's book when it first came out in hardcover, and re-read it when I received the complimentary copy.  The second reading provided even more insights, and it is a book that stays with you long after you have finished it. I took the liberty of passing it on to a friend of mine who belongs to another book club.  She called and thanked me for providing her with at least one sleepless night because she could not put the book down.  Needless to say, she will be keeping an eye out for Nancy Pickard's next book. - Irene T. Yeates

I just wanted to send you a note thanking you for the copy of THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS by Nancy Pickard which was recently sent to me.  I am a fan of Ms. Pickard’s Jenny Cain books, but was unaware that she was branching out to general fiction.  The book arrived just before my family began our annual beach vacation.  Once I began reading THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS, it was very hard to put down.  I particularly liked Ms. Pickard’s characters and her description of Midwestern small town life.  I have already passed my copy along to another friend, and will definitely be recommending it to our book group here at the office. Thank you again. - Anita I. Lotz

I recently also received a copy of THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS which I read and enjoyed very much. I spoke to several members of my book club about it and we are looking forward to reading it as one of our selections. I am one of the organizers of my book club, we have been meeting monthly since September of 1998 in Easton, PA. We are a group of twelve women between the ages of 30 and 65. We have become a very close knit group and our monthly meetings are looked forward to and enjoyed by all. - Stephanie Spangler

As a member, I'd just like to thank you for the recent copy of THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS. I absolutely loved this book and have lent it to various friends at my office who also enjoyed it. — Jennifer M. Evans


I am reading THE VIRGIN OF SMALL PLAINS right now and it is a wonderful book. I just wish I could hide -- away from my kids :) -- and read it this afternoon! I will be sure to post my comments in the next day or so! Thanks again! - Julie Peterson
Nancy Pickard|Author Q&A

About Nancy Pickard

Nancy Pickard - The Virgin of Small Plains

Photo © Walt Whitaker

Nancy Pickard is a four-time Edgar Award nominee, most recently for her Ballantine debut, The Virgin of Small Plains. She is the winner of the Anthony Award, the Macavity Award, and three Agatha Awards. Her short stories have also won numerous accolades. Pickard has been a national board member of the Mystery Writers of America and president of Sisters in Crime, and she is a member of PEN. She lives in Merriam, Kansas.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Nancy Pickard

Q: The Virgin of Small Plains is your eighteenth novel, but the first you’ve set entirely 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?

A: The piece of advice new writers hear most often is probably “Write what you know.” Good advice! And yet, I have lived in the Kansas City area all of my life—the first half on the Missouri side of the state line and this second half on the Kansas side—and until Virgin I had written only one novel that spent any time in my home area. That’s very odd, isn’t it? Why would a writer do that? Why would I set books in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Florida, Alabama, Arizona, and Colorado, but not in the state where I live? Part of the reason, I think, is that sometimes it’s hard to write about—just as it would be to photograph or paint, if I could actually do those things—people who stand too close. I can’t see them clearly; or rather, I can see the pores of their skin, but not them. Some perspective is required—at least, it is for me—and that means backing off. But I backed waaay off; in most of my other books I backed off half a continent from home. It’s also true that I always wanted to live somewhere else. I love New England, so I let my series heroine, Jenny Cain, live there. I love southeast Florida, so I invented a city modeled on Ft. Lauderdale and let another series heroine, Marie Lightfoot, enjoy the weather. But then about three years ago, as I was thinking about the book that would become Virgin, I looked at my life and said to myself, “Nancy, you have a mother who’s almost ninety years old and she lives here, and you have an only child who’s in college thirty miles away. You’re not going anywhere. What’s more, you’re probably never going anywhere.” And suddenly, just like that, and to paraphrase Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, if I couldn’t be in the states I loved, I’d love the state I was in. In that revelatory moment, I felt no resentment and I didn’t feel trapped at the idea of being “stuck” in Kansas. Instead, I felt midwestern from the soles of my feet to the roots of my hair. I felt as if I lived exactly where I was supposed to be, and for perhaps the first time in my life, I was content—no, more than content, I was delighted—with that fact. For some mysterious reason, probably having to do with the miracle of acceptance and surrender, something in me opened up creatively to . . . Kansas. Hey, somebody’s got to do it (I say, smiling). And there will be no cracks about boring and flat, please, because this is my state now!

Q: 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?

A: It had a remarkable genesis, starting with a dream. I was in Ft. Lauderdale, staying in the home of some friends while they were away, and I was worried and depressed about my writing. In another of the instances of surrender that seem to dot my adult life, when I went to bed I said to the universe, “Okay, I give up. I don’t know what to do. Help.” I went to sleep, in tears. That night I had a dream of flying. I’d had flying dreams before; anyone who has them knows how wonderful and wondrous they can be. But this one was different because for the first time I was a flying instructor, teaching other people to fly. It felt terrific. When I woke up, I knew something had shifted from bad to good and that that dream might signify hope. That morning, sitting on my friends’ porch, listening to a flock of wild parakeets in the trees outside, I started a novel I called Green Wings, about a young woman in Kansas who owned exotic birds. She wasn’t Abby, not yet anyway, but she was the beginning of Abby. It would be a couple of years before my contractual obligations to another publisher would allow me to think about Green Wings again. When that day came, I pulled out that little start of a manuscript and showed it to my Ballantine editor, the genius on my shoulder, Linda Marrow. Over the next couple of years, the girl became Abby Reynolds and the book became The Virgin of Small Plains. In case you’re wondering about chicken and egg: That dream came first and the revelation I talked about earlier, about Kansas, came second, just before I swallowed hard, crossed my fingers, and said to
Linda over the phone, “Let me tell you what I’d love to write next . . .” As for the dream, here’s what I think it means: I think it meant I was ready to move on to something bigger. And not only did it inspire Virgin, but I think it also predicted Seven Steps on the Writer’s Path, the book that Lynn Lott and I wrote to try to help writers become the pilots of their own writing lives.

Q: What about the development of the novel? Did this book present any unique challenges?

A: I’m sure it did, but I have a hard time remembering them. Like giving birth, I guess. I remember the joy of delivery, but not the labor pains. It’s funny because I do remember struggles I had with every other book, but not with this one. I vaguely remember struggling to get the first chapter right. Abby was too passive at first. She needed to take charge. And I recall my editor suggesting that I edit out some scenes I had written that showed Mitch and his ex-wife in Kansas City. She suggested I bring him back into the story right at the point when he’s on the road, going back to Small Plains. I resisted that, but I should have trusted Mitch to tell me if she was right or not. I do remember what a relief it was to write that scene where he’s standing at the gas pump, at the intersection of the highways, trying to decide whether to go on to Small Plains or turn around and go back to Kansas City.

Q: The action shuttles back and forth in time, altnerately 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?

A: I did it that way because I am fascinated by how people deal with their lives after events or other people disrupt them. I’ve watched people who never recover, who simmer in resentment, disappointment, regret, and frustration for the rest of their lives. And I’ve watched other people let go of the past and get their lives onto a track of their own choice. Maybe they get revenge, maybe they find redemption. I make no judgments about which way any person goes; we never know how hard it is for other people, or how bad things may have been for them. But it interests me. The people who handle it successfully inspire me. I’m thinking here of ordinary people, but also of giants like Nelson Mandela. So I wanted to show the time of disruption in the lives of Abby, Mitch, and Rex, and then catch up with them again to see what they made of it. Would Mitch be defeated by all he lost? Would Abby choose wrong? Would Rex “get over” the Virgin? It wasn’t hard to keep the timelines straight, because I had “practiced” by doing something similar in my Marie Lightfoot novels. But I am terrible at arithmetic! I was always subtracting one date from another and getting it wrong, so that weeks later I’d find out I had made somebody the wrong age or something. Arrgh! I am so paranoid about it. I triple check dates and still get them wrong, because if you subtract wrong three times you get three wrong answers, not one right one. Even in the copyedits, I’d find red messages saying things like “But if Rex was eighteen in 1987, then wouldn’t . . . ?” Thank goodness for copy editors who have both sides of their brains functioning. Even in writing this, I originally typed, “But if Rex was eighteen in 1967 . . .”

Q: How carefully do you map the plots of your books before sitting down to write? Do your characters sometimes surprise you?

A: As to plots, here’s how it works. To sell a book to my publisher, I devise a plot and then I write a proposal and pretend that’s what the book will be about. I send it to my agent and editor and they join me in pretending that’s what the book will be about. Then we go to contract. And then I write the book, which turns out to be almost nothing like the proposal. At various times during the writing I will make laughable attempts to plot the rest of the story before I get to it, and then the story will do whatever it damn well wants to do, since characters don’t read proposals, either. My characters do surprise me. That’s the part of writing fiction that I love best. For instance, in Virgin, I had no idea why Rex’s mom, Verna, was so sick the night of the storm. The first time I met her was when she was standing in the hallway outside of the bedroom, just before Rex joined his brother and his dad in the truck. She was sick. I hadn’t planned it, she just was. Now, if a character is ill, there should be a reason for it that has something to do with character or plot development. But all I knew was that she seemed to be feeling miserable and I had to let her feel as she really did feel. I couldn’t manipulate that. If she was sick, she was sick. So I let it play out to see what it meant. Turns out that was important for both character and plot, because it allowed the family to be out of town that day while so much gossiping was going on. Because Verna was in the hospital with pneumonia for a long time, she missed everything having to do with burying the Virgin, and that helped her allow herself to grow foggy about the whole event. It also kept Rex, Patrick, and their dad from talking to anybody and letting something slip. By the time they got back to town, the myth was already starting to grow. I didn’t plan any of that. I don’t know how this mysterious process works. It just does, if I can let go and let it happen.

Q: 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 accessible to you than others?

A: I loved being able to write in all those perspectives and points of view. For ten books in my Jenny Cain series I was stuck entirely in the first person point of view, and in a female point of view. In Virgin I could write in the voices of young people and older ones, or boys and girls, women and men. It was a great adventure for a writer. I felt lucky.
I think I had the most trouble “hearing” Abby at first. It took my editor to tell me that Abby is a much more active, less passive woman than I was allowing her to be. Abby’s plenty feisty. I had to let Abby be Abby!

Q: 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?

A: Now there’s an embarrassing question! (I say with a laugh.) In a word, yes. For many of us, the angst of adolescence remains fresh for a lifetime! Here’s an example of using my own teenage experience: Remember the terrible summer Abby had after Mitch left? To write that, one of the memories I called upon was of when I was a senior in high school and my boyfriend broke up with me. It would last only twenty-four hours (that time), but of course I didn’t know that. I spent those hours hiding out, listening to sad music, and weeping my eyes out. I even remember a particular song that made me cry the hardest: “Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain, telling me just what a fool I’ve been. I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain, and let me be alone again . . .” I may laugh at that now, but the truth is it hurts to be young and in love and have it go wrong. It hurts so much. I took my own shallow memories of delicious misery and then added my imagination to it. I let hers be bigger and last longer, because Abby’s pain was much deeper and more genuine than mine had been when I was her age. Hers had better cause, and also the element of mystery. I knew what I had done wrong when my boyfriend broke up with me (kissed another boy, my bad), but she had no idea why Mitch left, and he had been a true soul mate. So she wept and hid and mourned for a long time, until she was ready to stop crying. Just as I had to let Verna be ill, I had to let Abby be sad. I felt so sorry for her. I was glad that at least she had the parrot for company.

Q: 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 a natural narrative development.) Do you believe in the supernatural or spiritual?

A: I love mystery with a small and capital M. And I believe in letting readers think what they want to think. (Smiles and disappears.)

Q: 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?

A: Catie didn’t exist in the first partial draft of the book, nor did that subplot. Until they appeared, I had a nagging feeling that something big and important was missing. I don’t know what finally triggered the idea, but I do know that something like it had already been on my mind several years ago when I wrote a fable about healing. That story, “It Had to Be You,” originally appeared in the anthology Marilyn: Shades of Blonde. In that story, a full-length image of Marilyn Monroe appears on Mt. Rushmore alongside the presidents. She brings miracles of sexual healing, and plenty of trouble, and changes many people’s lives before she vanishes from the mountain. So I’d been having “Lourdes” thoughts, related to a beautiful, deceased young woman, for quite a while. I cannot say this often enough—writing is strange. Or maybe it’s writers who are.

Q: 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?

A: I wanted to play with the traditional structure of mystery/suspense novels, because I didn’t want to do the same old thing that I knew so well. In so many novels, the plot starts with a death, and then there’s at least one more death about midway through the book to keep the plot moving, and then there’s the final climax/revelation. I rebelled against doing that again. I thought, “What if I had, essentially, two climaxes, so that the first part of the book builds to one of them—something every bit as dramatic as the kind of climax most books end with—and then the rest of the book builds to the second climax? It meant not holding back in the middle; it meant throwing everything against the wall and taking the chance that I wouldn’t have enough drama left for the ending. I decided to take the risk.

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

A: I have, ever since reading Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. The first short story I ever wrote, as a senior in high school, was a mystery.

Q: How did you launch your career?

A: By leaping off a cliff! One day I gave all my paying clients (I was a freelance writer) thirty days notice, and thirty-one days later I started writing fiction full time. I must have been out of my mind. But what else can you do when you are overtaken by a desire to do nothing but write mystery novels for the rest of your life?

Q:
Do you feel that this book delves into new territory for you as a writer?

A: I do, but what may have really happened is that I finally got the chance to use everything I have learned in more than two decades of writing fiction. When I started out I had a limited number of tools in my belt, but now I know how to do quite a lot of things I couldn’t have done then. It’s easier to make your visions come true when you have the tools you need to build them.

Q: What are you working on next?

A: Another book set in a small town in Kansas, though in an entirely different landscape. There’s a spectacular bit of scenery in the far northwest corner of the state where an ancient inland sea once surged through the continent, cutting it in half from top to bottom. That wide ocean left chalk beds and carved great stone monuments that now rise above the flat earth. There are badlands there. It’s a dramatic, isolated landscape that comes as a big surprise if you’re not expecting it. Most Kansans have never been there, much less anybody else, or even heard of it. I won’t say more, because the characters haven’t let me in on all of their secrets yet.

Q: It must be asked: Have you ever experienced a tornado firsthand?

A: I have seen a funnel drop down from a cloud, though it didn’t touch ground. And I have lived through so many tornado alerts that I’m dangerously blasé—except when a twister is on a direct path to the University of Kansas! Then I can get nervous, as my son could tell you while he answers all my cell-phone calls: “Can you go to the laundry room?” “What? You’re not watching the weatherman?!” I know that eerie green light—what we call “a tornado sky”—very well, and I have driven under that oily boiling belly of the storm. But I’ve only actually been in tornadoes in my dreams. That’s close enough, thank you!

Praise

Praise

Advance praise for The Virgin of Small Plains

“The Virgin of Small Plains will keep you up all night. Nancy Pickard’s intelligent, suspenseful storytelling never disappoints.”
–Julie Garwood

“Like the heart-stopping skid that sets it in motion, this book hurtles inexorably toward a startling conclusion. Along the way Nancy Pickard wrests magic from the everyday and redemption from broken dreams. The Virgin Of Small Plains is a beautiful and resonant book.”
–Carol Goodman, author of The Ghost Orchid

“An unforgettable tale of love, lust, faith, betrayal, and redemption. A powerful, mesmerizing suspense novel–a tour de force!”
–Judith Kelman, author of The Session

“A hold-your-breath suspense story–sexy, warm, and poignant, with aching loss and a human desire for miracles. Pickard’s best book yet.”
–Margaret Maron, author of Rituals of the Season




From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

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, altnerately 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?


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