Native Texan Tommie McCloud has spent the past few years anywhere but home. Her dreams of being a champion on the national rodeo circuit – and her mother’s dreams of Tommie being a classical pianist – were literally crushed when a bull with a particularly nasty temper shattered Tommie’s forearm and hand, as well as her future.
So instead of becoming the next Pam Minick or Martha Argerich, Tommie went to college, pursued a degree in psychology, and continued working around the horses she loves so much. Now only a few credits shy of her Ph.D., Tommie has combined the two into a career working with abused and traumatized children in a ranch environment.
When she returns to the family’s estate following her father’s death, Tommie realizes Texas is deep in her blood and that home is where she should have been all along. But just when she thinks she’s ready to settle back in and reestablish her relationships with her sister, niece, and mother, Tommie’s life is ripped apart once again when a mysterious letter arrives suggesting everything Tommie thought she knew to be true about her life and family is actually a lie.
Not wanting to believe the letter’s claim that she is in fact the writer’s daughter, who was kidnapped over 30 years ago in Chicago, Tommie nevertheless can’t simply turn her back on such a momentous, life-altering possibility. Especially not when her own cursory investigation turns up information that brings other aspects of her family’s history into question. And certainly not when a mysterious man claiming to be a journalist shows up asking questions related to the claims made in the letter, questions which suggest Tommie’s past may actually be intertwined with the massacre of a family in Chicago, the murder of a woman in Oklahoma, and the disappearance of yet another young girl. Now Tommie has no choice but to confront the past before she will be able to embrace her future.
Tommie McCloud is the kind of lead who is incredibly easy to root for, brought beautifully and believably to life under author Julia Heaberlin’s skillful hand. Texas-tough and more than capable of handling herself physically, it’s the mental hurdles that cause Tommie problems in Playing Dead. Already haunted by the tragic death of her brother when she was a young girl, Tommie is prone to occasional panic attacks. A failed relationship during her burgeoning rodeo days has also made her somewhat aloof and distrustful of people in general, a mindset that is both a help and hindrance as she tries desperately to make sense of the scattered pieces of the puzzle that her family’s history has become.
Throughout, Heaberlin strikes the perfect balance between character development and action. Tommie is an introspective and reflective woman by nature and the events confronting her in Playing Dead force her to go ever farther down that path, questioning everything and everyone, including herself. But Heaberlin never lets the story simmer too long psychologically, weaving first class thriller action into the plot just when it’s needed to keep things from taking place too much in Tommie’s head. And though parts of the story happen in Chicago, the majority of the tale unfolds in a Texas so wonderfully realized and brimming with picture-perfect descriptions that you can practically feel the hot wind on your shoulder.
A powerful and confident debut, Playing Dead should unquestionably bring Julia Heaberlin’s career as an author roaring to life.
Playing Dead is available from Ballantine Books (ISBN: 978-0345527011).
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