In this winsome fable, a mysterious stranger blows into town, bringing hope to the father of a dying girl.
Ebb, Nebraska, is an unusual small town. Its vibrant downtown is anchored by one of the last family-owned department stores in the state (Wal-Mart is the bogeyman). Its townspeople are effortlessly nice. Many are businesswomen and divorcées, including narrator Wilma Porter, an ebullient grandmother and owner of a classy B&B. One fine day, an elegantly attired gent with prematurely white hair asks for a room. Vernon Moore claims to be a traveling salesman of games of chance, but nobody believes such an anachronism still exists. Vernon, however, exudes integrity and quickly gets a meeting with department store owner Calvin Millet. The unlucky Calvin’s 11-year-old daughter, Lucy, has an incurable disease, and banker Clem Tucker (“a hard, tough man,” says Wilma) is about to call in loans to the store, necessitating its sale. It’s time for the charismatic Vernon to go to work. Besides straightening out Clem, he persuades Calvin—in conversations that make up the heart of the story—to replace fear with hope. Nothing can stop Lucy’s death, but she can die with dignity (deciding herself when to stop her medication), and in hope, if she and Calvin both believe in an afterlife. Vernon’s ingenious pitch for the likelihood of multiple lives might give even a robust skeptic pause, though the inevitable schmaltz-effect (there’s more than an echo here of Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life) of the struggle to get a distraught man to think positive is offset by a bracing commonsense and refusal to ignore ugly realities (death, divorce, and Wal-Mart). As for the mystery of Vernon’s origins, newcomer Shaffner wisely leaves that question unresolved. Vernon makes strong use of ghosts in his arguments; hey, he might even be one himself.
Shaffner’s first is far from flawless, but its quirky charm and feminist slant could make it a surprise bestseller.