Book Review by Ann Jonas, Tradebook Buyer - CSB/SJU Bookstores
this review was published in the St. Cloud Visitor
Ordinary Grace: A Novel by William Kent Krueger; Atria Books; March 2013; 307 pp.; $24.99
William Kent Krueger, author of the award-winning Cork O'Connor mystery series, has written a new novel, which is very different from his mysteries. Like most of the thirteen Cork O'Connor titles, Ordinary Grace is set in Minnesota. The book is a story of a murder in a small town, but rather than focusing on "whodunit," Ordinary Grace tells the story of that tragedy's effects on the town and its residents.
The story is narrated by Frank Drum, forty years after the murder occurs. Frank is thirteen years old that summer of 1961, and lives with his family in New Bremen, a fictional town in the Minnesota River Valley. As the book's prologue states "It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder." The book begins with the death of one of the town's residents, a young schoolmate of Frank, who is killed on the railroad tracks outside of town. Further into the story, Frank's older sister, a talented singer who is headed to Juilliard, is murdered.
The book portrays Frank as a young teenage boy and his little brother, Jake, who try to make sense of the recent happenings in their family and their town. Nathan, their father, is the local Methodist minister. Their mother, Ruth, resents her husband's choice to be a minister, and is seen as somewhat of a rebel because she smokes and doesn't seem to care about appearances.
Nathan is the source of much wisdom, offering faith and leadership during tough times. At his church's service right after his daughter's death, Nathan starts his sermon by stating "I confess that I have cried out to God, 'Why have you forsaken me?'" He proceeds to deliver a beautiful and profound message of hope and belief.
In Ordinary Grace, Krueger sends readers back to 1961, when the Minnesota Twins were playing their debut season and life in a small town included a soda fountain, barbershop, and church. According to Krueger, the book is definitely not autobiographical, but he did "tap the deep roots" of his own experience, having grown up during that time period in several small towns. Krueger states that setting the book during that era allowed him to examine memories and feelings from his adolescence, and to "explore themes that have been important to me all my life."
Clearly, those themes include wisdom and grace, along with faith and forgiveness. Krueger does a masterful job of capturing the voices of Frank and his brother. The characters and small town life seem authentic and perceptive. The book is powerfully written and contains many beautiful passages, including the scene when Jake, who stutters, delivers the blessing at the meal following his sister's funeral that is simple and perfectly spoken. Frank reflects: "That was it. That was all of it. A grace so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember. Yet I have never across the forty years since they were spoken forgotten a single word."
Krueger has stated that Ordinary Grace is the "best thing" he has ever written; "everything I know about storytelling" went into this book. The idea for the novel came to him a while ago, but he was under contract to write other books. The story "haunted him, in the way good stories will," and simply wouldn't go away. Readers of Ordinary Grace are grateful that Krueger persevered and delivered this extraordinary book.