Review

Ordinary Grace

by William Kent Krueger

One cannot read ORDINARY GRACE without feeling as if it is destined to be hailed as a classic work of literature. My initial reaction was a question: How do you write something this good? I suppose that the simple answer, though true nonetheless, is: one word at a time. Yet that is not the whole truth. I suspect that, considering its subject matter, a great deal of the book was painful in the telling for author William Kent Krueger, though hopefully relief was obtained in the release. And indeed, this is at once a beautiful and painful story that digs down into those corners and crannies of that box we call truth, the one to which we give homage but cringe a bit when we open it up, look inside, and reveal its elements, one by one.

ORDINARY GRACE has been referred to elsewhere as a “literary mystery,” and that would not be wrong. But you wouldn’t want to consign this novel to any particular genre when to do so might limit its readership. Each and all of Krueger’s Cork O’Connor books arguably could be classified as literary mysteries. ORDINARY GRACE is a bit different, and not merely due to Cork’s absence. It is a stand-alone work, a coming-of-age story that I sense is at least partially biographical, by turns heartwarming and heart-rending, a very spiritual book shot through with metaphors and turns of phrase that demand to be noted, marked and re-read long after the last page is turned.

"ORDINARY GRACE is one of those very rare books in which one regrets reaching its end, knowing that the experience of having read it for the first time will never be repeated. Krueger, who is incapable of writing badly, arguably has given us his masterpiece."

Frank Drum is the first-person narrator, a 13-year-old p.k. (preacher’s kid) on the cusp of innocence and knowledge in the summer of 1961. It was a time not so far removed from the present, though for those of us fortunate enough to have lived then and can recall those days, it seems as if it’s an entirely different world. Frank is the middle child of three, wedged comfortably for the most part between Ariel, his older sister, who is mildly flawed physically yet possessed of an enormous talent for musical composition, and Jake, his younger brother, whose high intelligence is hampered by a stammer that manifests itself in public speaking. Jake is a bit of a wild child, gently chafed by his parents’ rules and thus given to acting out somewhat,  though certainly he is no worse than many of the same of that particular era and positively angelic when compared to those who run rampant now. His father is a Methodist minister, charged with the spiritual needs of three small churches in and near New Bremen, Minnesota.

As we come to find out fairly early on, Jake’s mother is somewhat disappointed with her station in life at the beginning of the summer of 1961. Thinking she was marrying an attorney with a promising future, she instead finds herself to be the wife of a preacher who is uprooted every few years to play the role of the parson’s wife before a new audience. New Bremen is her hometown, and the tensions of the past that roil quietly beneath the surface are revealed through Jake’s eyes as only an unvarnished teenage boy of that era could see them. What is most significant, though, are four deaths that will affect each member of the family to varying degrees  and threaten to tear it apart. They are four very different deaths --- the first an apparent accident, the second from natural causes, and the fourth by suicide.

It is the third death --- a murder --- that ultimately reveals a series of secrets that ripple through Jake’s family and the town of New Bremen. The Reverend Drum, who has a faith in God that runs wide and deep, finds his beliefs to be tested as never before, even as he relies on it to take him through the storm of his life. Trust is shattered, mysteries are solved, and a miracle occurs. By the end of ORDINARY GRACE (a title you will not forget by story’s end), not all can be put right, but things can go on, and go well, if not perfectly.

ORDINARY GRACE is one of those very rare books in which one regrets reaching its end, knowing that the experience of having read it for the first time will never be repeated. Krueger, who is incapable of writing badly, arguably has given us his masterpiece.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 29, 2013

Ordinary Grace
by William Kent Krueger