Hallie Michaels, a soldier in Afghanistan, is sent home to Prairie City, South Dakota, for ten days of compassionate leave when her sister Dell dies in a car accident. Rumor has it Dell committed suicide, but Hallie doesn’t buy it. And since her own recent brush with death in the war, Hallie can see ghosts, including Dell’s. Hallie is determined to find out why Dell really died and enable her sister to find peace — and she’s only got ten days to do it.
Hallie is a fantastic protagonist: sympathetic yet flawed, honorable but full of jagged edges. She is thrust back into the civilian world at the beginning of Wide Open and finds that she’s just not used to it anymore. Her temper burns a little too hot. She is annoyed when friends do things that would be foolish in the war zone, such as when her friend Brett moves too slowly. She’s not sure she remembers, anymore, how to navigate the rituals of small-town small talk. Deborah Coates uses lots of little touches like this to bring Hallie to life in three dimensions.
Prairie City is as complex as the woman returning to it. I had a few reservations going into Wide Open; I was worried it would turn out to be one of the “cute quaint small town” books where a heroine returns to her hometown and realizes that it’s perfect and all other ways of life are miserable by comparison. That’s simply not a genre that does much for me. But that’s not what Coates does. Prairie City has its good points and its flaws, like any real place; it’s this balance that makes it feel like a real place. There’s a lot of human warmth in Prairie City (though it’s often hidden under a layer of stoicism), the place has a desolate beauty, and it’s easy to see why someone could love living there. At the same time, it can be oppressive. It’s a place where everyone has history with everyone else, and all the baggage that comes with that; and you don’t get the friendliest of reactions if you question the company that’s bringing in the jobs.
As for the paranormal elements, Hallie soon learns that her ghosts aren’t the only weirdness in town. Dell’s death is connected to a sinister figure who’s using the supernatural for his own ends. The extent of the villain’s powers is sometimes hazy, which can be both good and bad. Sometimes I found myself wondering why he wasn’t doing anything worse to stop Hallie than what he was actually doing (which, granted, was pretty bad already). But at other times he’d turn out to have more power than I thought, which made for great scares; there’s one in particular that made me say “Oh, holy crap” aloud because it was something much bigger than I’d thought he was capable of. And an explanation does emerge, later, for why Hallie is not attacked more directly by these powers.
One more thing about the ghosts: there’s one ghost in Wide Open who has nothing to do with the mystery of Dell’s death, but who is intimately involved in my very favorite scene of the book. It brought me to tears. It concerns one of Hallie’s fellow soldiers, who died in Afghanistan and left behind a grieving fiancée. The scene where Hallie deals with his plight is simply wonderful.
There’s a touch of romance in Wide Open, but it does not overwhelm the other aspects of the plot. Hallie’s suitor is another layered character; his love of order stems from a deep-seated fear of chaos. Both characters are prickly and so it’s a slow courtship, but a realistic one devoid of “insta-love” annoyances.
Wide Open’s plot is self-contained and is satisfactorily wrapped up by the end, but the very last scene opens the door for further stories. Deborah Coates has impressed me with this first novel, and I will definitely be on the lookout for more.