26 September, 2022

LitStack Recs: The Lesson of the Master & Ordinary Grace


Ordinary Grace, William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace is the story of 13 year old Frank Drum, the son of a Methodist minister in a small town in rural Minnesota, during the summer of 1961 when tragic events change his town and his family forever.  Being the daughter of a Methodist minister who spent most of her life in small towns in rural Iowa, I wanted to see if Mr. Krueger could capture the feel of what I experienced when I was young.

He did, and more.  Although his story takes place a little north of mine, and occurs a little earlier than mine, and is far more dramatic than mine, I nevertheless felt akin to Frank and his family, especially his father – a man rooted in his solid, loving faith.  The delicate yet unflinching authenticity running through every aspect of the story makes it a strong and touching read.

Frank is the middle child of his family, a good kid at heart even though he’s got a bit of a wild streak in him, and a young boy’s penchant for sometimes doing things he knows he shouldn’t.  He’s often shadowed by his younger brother, Jake, who he puts up with not just out of loyalty, but also as protection because Jake has a stutter that singles him out for ridicule.  Ariel is their older sister who, at 18, is beautiful (although she was born with a harelip) and talented; Ariel’s musical ability has her slated to attend Julliard in the fall.

New Bremen is a quiet little town, sequestered from the social turmoil sweeping other areas of the country.  It’s an idyllic place to be a kid, before cell phones and cable television and the internet, when comic books and barbershop haircuts and wandering on the forbidden train tracks filled the idle hours.

But this was a also a summer of sadness and tragedy; indeed, the book begins with death.  Bobby Cole, the same age as Frank but a couple of years behind in school due to his being “slow”, is found dead on the railroad tracks, “sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota.”  Most figured Bobby had gone into a trance, as he was known to do, and simply didn’t hear the train until too late, but there were whispers and hints of drifters who followed the rails and were not “like the good people of New Bremen”.

But Bobby’s death is only the first in a summer that sees many different kinds of loss.  Some are direct and searing; others are more subtle such as the woman in the church choir who, along with her son, bears the marks of abuse.  There is intolerance, as well, but also a young boy’s confusion as he finds himself caught up in its mindless proliferation.  Thankfully for us, author Krueger does not merely settle for the dramatic; his array of characters respond to the losses and the intolerances in ways that are not often given voice in fiction.  This allows for a nuanced, deeply moving tale that keeps the reader interested not just for the visceral action on the page, but also for the deeper effect that those actions and their consequences have.

Beautifully written, wrenching  yet affirming, Ordinary Grace piques interest with mystery but holds attention with lovingly crafted characters that ring true, ones you grow to care about.  It evokes a time and a place that may be behind us, but does so in a way that allows us to recognize ourselves, whether by contemplating life while sitting on a train trestle over a lazy river, or by being torn between doing the easy thing or what you know is right.  It calls into question the limits of justice, and the terrible complexities of love and friendship and family, and it will resonate for a long, long time.

—Sharon Browning