The Virgin of Small Plains

The Virgin of Small Plains

by Nancy Pickard
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The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345471000
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/29/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 368
Sales rank: 594,041
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

Nancy Pickard is the creator of the acclaimed Jenny Cain mystery series. 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. Visit her website at

From the Hardcover edition.

Read an 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.

Reading Group Guide

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?

Customer Reviews

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Virgin of Small Plains 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 190 reviews.
Loves2Read_Girl More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading this book. I was in a hurry at the bookstore so I didn't put a lot of thought into the purchase, but I was glad I ended up with it. I like a good love story that's not too sappy, and I never figured out the mystery of the story until the author revealed it. I will definately seek out other books written by this author. I like her writing style and her story line.
Kee-Kee More than 1 year ago
I am not even finished with the novel, and I am writing this review. I chose this book because Pickard's other novel The Scent of Rain and Lightning was so good; I figured another one would be as well. This one is even better. Pickard's writing style is descriptive, which pulls the reader into the story within the first few pages. This particular novel has me guessing constantly about the mystery surrounding "the Virgin." I am enjoying the way that Pickard unveils information throughout the novel. It is not so easy to predict what is going to happen next. Even before I'm done, I'm on a quest for another Pickard story.
Jadlyn-2 More than 1 year ago
Very well written and a page turner. Nancy Picard did the books flashbacks a little differently than most authors, to me that made the story easy to follow. I really enjoyed the book and the book's story charaters. The events in the story could happen in any small town.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I just picked this up at the library while browing through the new books section. I had not read this author before. The book has me totally mesmerized. It's the kind you simply cannot put down as each page beckons you to the next one to see what surprises are in store. All the characters are completely believable some are obvious villains and some are just plain nice folks. I'm not to the end yet but I simply don't want it to end! I don't know (but have some guesses) 'who done it.' This is one of the best reads I've had in a long, long time.
MrsO More than 1 year ago
I almost put this boook down halfway through, but hoped it would get better. The end was sort of a surprise, but I think a little more complicated than it had to be. The thing that bothered me throughout the story was all of the characters to keep straight. There was Rex and Nathan and Abby and Mitch and Tom and Quentin and Patrick and Sarah and Jeff and Mr. and Mrs. this and that and Catie and assorted friends that often got only one mention...none of the people were very memorable or colorful and so I couldn't even put a face to them. The story just went on and on and seemed very pointless at times.
SheriBaby More than 1 year ago
Great Story Line. . .enjoyed reading this book. Suspenseful and not predictable.
Guest More than 1 year ago
A mystery with a solid arc that pays homage to the story's emotional centerpiece from the first to the last page. Characters react to events at two critical points in their lives, and their core values are put to the test in light of their maturity. Though I figured a few things out early on, the road to get confirmation was filled with doubt, as twists kept plopping down on the page like debris from a twister. It is a story of considerable power dealing with the choices people make throughout their lives, how they justify those choices, and how they reach for redemption later on. The few quibbles about coincidences are insignificant. Highest praises...5 out of 5.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This story will stay with you long after you read it. It is up there with my favorites, Gone With The Wind, Tender Is The Night and The Catcher in The Rye!! Well Written!! Great story!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Nancy Pickard did a marvelous job in creating a novel that was suspenseful until the very end. Her setting was in a small town in Kansas called Small Plains, which I believe added to the story line because who would think of a scandal occurring in such a small town especially one that involved everyone from the sheriff to the only doctor to the judge. I can never say no to a good suspense novel. Every turn of the page added another question to the back of my mind in trying to unravel the mystery of ¿the Virgin¿ of Small Plains. Once I answered one question, another would arise or I would find myself realizing I was wrong in an earlier assumption. The basic story line revolved around a women names Abbey who wanted to investigate ¿the Virgin¿s¿ unsolved death and give her a name to put on the grave. Through her search she slowly starts to unearth hidden secrets involving her father, Dr. Quentin 'Doc' Reynolds, and his scary involvement with ¿the Virgin¿s¿ unknown identity. There is also the sudden appearance of her childhood lover named, Mitch, who disappeared the morning after ¿the Virgin¿s¿ death and was quietly assumed to be her killer. Pickard leaves no downtime in her novel. The purpose of this novel was to tell a very strange story and entertain the reader. Pickard succeeded in every which way. I have never been so intrigued by a novel before. I cried and I laughed at this book. Pickard managed to show, not only the mysterious death of a girl, but the love of two people finding each other again, a mind opening tale involving a cancer patient, and families being ripped a part by death and deceit. She uses the present tense but flashes back into the past from time to time. Pickard also gave me a chance to see from other character¿s view points besides Abbey¿s. This allowed me to really get a close connection with each character and feel as if I was truly in Kansas and involved with uncovering the mystery. I believe that a writer has definitely succeeded in their goal if they are able to make the reader feel a part of the story. I highly recommend this book to others. It may seem as if there is a lot going on in this book and that is because there is. In the end it all comes together like puzzle pieces. There is not one insignificant happening in the book. Every slight even can be tied into some greater meaning. If the mystery of the unknown is not enough to grab other people¿s attention then I hope the knowledge of the deceit and numerous twists that occur can do it. The Virgin of Small Plains is a book that I know I will reach out for again to read sometime in the future and I hope all others will take my advice and read it as well.
Anonymous 21 days ago
Great read about a small town, keeping secrets, more concerned about their reputations than family. Great story, kept my interest throughout the whole book. Will look for other books b6 this author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I love this book,heart warming with a little magic and lots of love.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not my typical read but had great depth
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Lesrenee More than 1 year ago
Loved this book!
carrietm More than 1 year ago
Great read!  And one that you won't want to put down.  I highly recommend The Scent of Rain and Lightening as well by this author.  That amazing book is what lead me to explore her others.
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Lny11 More than 1 year ago
This is the second book I've read by Pickard and I truly do appreciate her style of writing. I like how she builds up the story by giving each of the main characters' point of view.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I just cannot finish this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. The ending was an unexpected twist. Very enjoyable read!