Hallie Palmer is, in many ways, a typical college student. In fact, at the beginning of THE BIG SHUFFLE we find her at a fraternity kegger trying to connect with the young man she has her eye on. But the idyll is destroyed as a frantic, scarved, older man crashes the party and drags Hallie out, telling her that her father has had a heart attack. Hallie has a hard time comprehending how this could happen to such a young, physically imposing gentleman. And, by the time she and her scarf-sporting escort (her good friend Bernard) arrive at the hospital, she has to deal with a much more difficult concept --- her father has died.
Laura Pedersen's latest Hallie Palmer novel, following BEGINNER'S LUCK and HEART'S DESIRE, is not what you'd expect from the setup. Upon arriving at the hospital, Hallie is also told that her mother is incapacitated by grief, and it falls on Hallie to care for her siblings. Hallie is one of 10 children and the oldest girl. Her brother Eric, a college athlete, is on his way home by plane, but in the meantime Hallie is totally responsible for the Palmer clan. Eventually it becomes apparent that her mother won't be home anytime soon; in fact, she is transferred to a psychiatric facility. Eric can stay to help for a while, but it is determined that, because he is on scholarship and close to graduation, he will return to school while Hallie will withdraw from her classes in order to run the Palmer household.
The funeral is a blur, as Hallie doesn't have time to properly mourn her father. She has to feed, clothe and bathe the younger children (ranging in age from 16 years old to 2 months old), not to mention explain to them that their father has died and their mother has been hospitalized. In true small-town fashion, the community rallies around the Palmers with assistance, support and casseroles. While it helps in the short term, Hallie knows it won't last forever.
As the proverbial smoke clears, Hallie finds that she is supported by both the likeliest and unlikeliest figures, including her scatterbrained aunt Lala, her salty old uncle Lenny, and her wonderful friends Bernard and Gil. Her boyfriend Craig and the selfless Father Costello provide comfort and then challenge Hallie to rethink her relationships.
Pedersen's warm and surprisingly funny novel is immensely readable and quite enjoyable. Some of the Palmer family background, specifically why Hallie dropped out of high school and came to live with Bernard and Gil, is unclear as it is addressed in earlier novels. Those who haven't read these previous books can only assume things about Hallie's past as a teenage gambler and card shark. Still, THE BIG SHUFFLE stands alone as a good story.
While the premise of the novel is sad and easily could become claustrophobic, Pedersen manages to keep the focus on Hallie and how she copes day to day, moment to moment, with the hand she is dealt. There are no major emotional epiphanies --- just an honest look at the mundane details that occupy us in the wake of such a loss as Hallie's.
Pedersen does throw in some neat tricks. For example, the weather in the small Ohio town in which the tale is set seems to reflect the state of affairs in the Palmer house, from winter storms to spring floods.
The Palmer family does regai