Tabula Rasa
Shelly Reuben
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Tabula Rasa

Shelly Reuben
304 pages
August 2005
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars
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There is a house in Sojourn, New York, known locally as “the ugly house.” Two children live in that house, an eleven-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy. There is also a baby with dark, staring eyes who never smiles, only watches. Her mother sometimes speculates that the infant is a changeling. In the hospital, Edith fills out the birth certificate as "Baby Tuttle," promising to give her child a lovely name later. But she never does.

Years earlier, Billy Nightingale comes to firefighting through his inventiveness and avid curiosity about what makes things work. Billy is fascinated by the antiquated pumps of the Fire Department in his hometown of Elk Mountain, Wyoming. Later, as an adult in New York City, Billy lives his dream, becoming a fire marshal, close friends with his brother-in-law, state trooper Sebastian Bly.

Nightingale and Bly are called to the scene of a house fire in Sojourn, where two children are lost to the flames, the mother being comforted by a neighbor when they arrive. Something is terribly wrong with this picture, but Billy can't put his finger on the cause of his unease. Spooked by the malevolent aura of the fire-ravaged house, Nightingale searches randomly, sure he is missing something. He discovers a terrified but silent baby under the foundation of the house, where she has crawled for safety.

In her police interview, Edith Tuttle failed to mention this third child, apparently forgetting the baby in her distress. Billy's sister, Annie, and her husband, Sebastian, work with children's services to adopt the baby, whom they name Meredith, putting her mother permanently out of the picture. This innocent came to them from a house of death and has known a life free of chaos, stimulated by a loving environment, her career as a professional ballerina already on track.

Merry is a contented child and the next few years pass quietly. But when Merry inquires about her birth mother, the Bly's and Uncle Billy are determined to protect their daughter from a history that could scar her future. But Merry inadvertently sets in motion a chain of events that will threaten her and her adoptive family years later.

Reuben's characters are vivid and energetic. Her writing crackles with energy, with an appreciation of the subtleties of fires, the methods of arson and the clues that help investigators identify causes. Beside the relevant information about arson investigation, a search for adoptive parents and the intricacies of a dancer's life, the novel also deals with the emotional aspects of adoption, particularly when a child is obsessed with finding her birth parents.

The author's personal expertise is extensive, adding interest and believability, a fascinating foray into an area rarely experienced by most, a happy family circle shattered by a child's quest for identity and the dark forces that search unleashes. In Tabula Rasa, “blank slate” can be written on any number of ways, DNA directed toward success instead of failure, with the aid of a loving family.

Click here for Luan Gaines' interview with Tabula Rasa author Shelly Reuben

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Luan Gaines, 2005

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