Leah Randall, a down-on-her-luck vaudeville actress, stars as part of the Little Darlings but is waylaid by the duplicitous Oliver Beckett. He wants her to impersonate wealthy Jessie Carr, who disappeared seven years ago in the summer of 1917. No one has seen Jessie since. After all these years, Oliver can’t quite believe that Leah looks just like Jessie, with her auburn hair, lovely green eyes, and her characteristic freckles. Leah’s life is turned upside down when she’s given the boot from the Little Darlings; her instinctive reaction is to find more work in vaudeville.
At first Leah curtly refuses Oliver’s job offer as she sits having dinner in the lobby of the expensive Blackstone Hotel. A spirited girl whose idol is Mary Pickford, Leah is used to the hungry times and the weeks of no work. Most of her life has been characterized by small-time hardship, tawdry boardinghouses and “promised salaries unpaid.” The sick and scared Leah is desperate enough to snatch at any way out of her dire circumstances when she realizes that Jessie inherits everything after she turns twenty-one from a family business centered on logging.
Slimy Oliver assures her that she “won’t be taking the money away from anyone” and she can “disappear into anonymity with little lost.” Leah comes into the escapade with nothing but her face and her acting talents. The fact that she doesn’t belong rattles Leah more than she cares to admit as she prepares to waltz into high society without anyone noticing.
With this in mind, readers are sure to relish the tale’s well-orchestrated, spirited plot centering on Leah’s impersonation of Jessie and Miley’s 1920s-era America with all of its knowledge regarding the senselessness of war and the sensibilities of those damaged both physically and psychologically by lost and hopeless dreams. Add to that a local Oregon economy based on bootlegging and the mysterious deaths of young girls around the town of Dexter (the location of Cliff House, the Carr family home), and Jessie/Leah finds herself caught up in the effects of “pretending away murder” while carrying out her introductory and exhausting charade.
This “heiress gig” proves to be nice work, but Miley’s feisty heroine finds herself attempting to solve the riddle of Jessie’s disappearance. As Leah successfully progresses in her undertaking, she uncovers fascinating information regarding the past of the real Jessie, which plunges her into the immediate family dynamics. The Carr family proves to be just as entangling as the mystery of a murder victim. Her body crumpled like one of “Marchett’s Marionettes,” the Indian girl’s dark braids are black with dried blood, her head is bent at an impossible angle.
Leah suspects disconsolate cousin Henry Carr, who proves every passing day to be her greatest antagonist. Henry will be most deprived of the Carr fortune if Jessie returns and makes her claim. Apparently a long past misdeed weighs heavily on Henry’s conscience, and only a potential career in politics can possibly lessen the burden of his guilt. Also in the mix are younger cousin Ross and twins Caroline and Valerie, who are closely watched by officious Aunt Victoria and a cold, inscrutable “Grandmother” who seems befuddled by her age and memories that could be real or conjured. Later, handsome David Murray’s unexpected revelations give Leah a sharp pang of regret. She doesn’t like seeing David mixed up with Henry’s sordid affairs, where certain bribes grease the skids in the speakeasies of Portland.
Owing much to her benefactor—her name, her family, and her money, Jessie/Leah is buoyed along by her inscrutable talent as an actress. She trusts that perseverance will temper the turmoil of her tempestuous impersonation even after she gets caught up in the quagmire that is the Carr’s sense of entitlement. What she uncovers regarding the real Jessie places her at death’s edge, yet these revelations ultimately help her to understand that the trials of a girl in another age are not all that different from her own.