William Kent Krueger
Publication Date: March 26, 2013
I have a confession to make. I had ulterior motives when reading William Kent Krueger‘s novel, Ordinary Grace. I felt compelled to read this book, and share it if it bore out being as good as I assumed it would be. There were two reasons for my interest: one is that Mr. Krueger is a Minnesota author, and I thoroughly enjoy reading works from those who hail from the state that I unabashedly love. I had only read one book of his before, Trickster’s Point, his 12th mystery novel centered around Cork O’Connor, the former sheriff of Tamarack County in Northern Minnesota and a man of mixed heritage (Irish and Ojibwe). I found that book to be low key but very engaging, and his depiction of living “up north” to be genuine.
But Ordinary Grace is not about a small town sheriff, nor is it a mystery novel, although there are mysteries that sadly wind through the heart of the story. No, it is something quite different, and that is the second reason I felt compelled to read it – 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 took place a little north of mine, and a little earlier than mine, and far more dramatically than mine unfolded, nevertheless I felt very much akin to Frank and his family, especially his father who was a man rooted in his solid, loving faith. It is this sense of delicate yet unflinching authenticity running through every aspect of the story that makes it such a strong and touching read, regardless of your background or experience.
Frank is the middle child in his family, at heart a good kid 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 often singles him out for getting picked on. 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 a pretty 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.
We sat this way for several minutes in the nearly silent welter of that July afternoon. The sky was a cloudless blue, the cornfields on the other side of the river deep jade, the distant hills a mottled green like turtle shells, and the water of the Minnesota River the color of cloudy cider. I was so used to the fertile smell of the valley that I barely noticed the raw fragrance drawn up from the wet black earth by the heat of the sun.
But this was a also a summer of sadness and tragedy; indeed, the book begins with death. Blond haired, dreamy-eyed Bobby Cole, the same age as Frank but a couple of years behind in school due to his being somewhat slow, was found dead on the railroad tracks, “sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota.” Most figured that 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”. Kids were warned off the tracks, which of course meant that they were drawn to them regardless of – or perhaps because of – the risk.
But Bobby’s death is only the first in a summer that sees many different kinds of loss, from many different causes. Some of them are direct and searing; others are more subtle and separate from Frank and his family, such as the woman in the church choir with the lovely contralto voice, who, along with her son, bears the marks of abuse. There is intolerance, as well, as one would expect from a small town in the north in the 1960s, but there is also a young boy’s wonderment at it 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, yet in ways that I saw and experienced in my own upbringing. This allows for a nuanced, deeply moving tale that keeps the reader interested not just for the visceral action on the page, but also in the deeper effect that those actions and their consequences have within the Drum family and on their neighbors.
I remembered the day I’d stood in the doorway of the Klements’ barn and had been amazed by all the disassembled machinery inside and had seen the bruises on Peter’s face and on his mother’s, and I recalled how I’d felt sorry and was afraid for them as a family. I realized that although I hadn’t acknowledged it I’d thought that my own family was better, special somehow, and that we were indestructible. That day seemed to be on the far side of forever ago and now I saw on Peter’s face the same look I’d probably given him back then, and I understood that he was afraid for me and for my family and I knew he was right to be.
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 honestly 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 in the landscape, whether by contemplating life while sitting on a train trestle over a lazy river, or by being torn between doing the easy thing or the harder task of doing 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.