William Kent Krueger
Ordinary grace – what does that mean? Do experiences of grace range from less-than-ordinary through extra-ordinary degrees? For author William Kent Krueger, Ordinary Grace is a novel, a captivating chronicle that includes a coming of age story, a murder mystery, and a stunning definition of ordinary grace.
William Kent Krueger is the much lauded author of the Cork O’Connor mysteries, a series of crime stories which take place primarily in wilderness areas of northern Minnesota. Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, published by Simon & Schuster (2013), a New York Times best-seller and 2014 Edgar Award Best Novel winner, is not a part of the Cork O’Connor series, but is a stand-alone novel set in a small town in southern Minnesota in the 1960’s. In an interview at the Recorded Books studio in New York City in May of 2013, Krueger compared Ordinary Grace to the Cork O’Connor series. He explained that Ordinary Grace is not strictly fiction, as the O’Connor series is, but is a book mined from his own experiences growing up. He said writing Ordinary Grace exposed his heart in a way that “was scary, and meant that I was offering myself openly to my readers to make judgments of me, which doesn’t happen in the Cork O’Connor books.”
All the action in Ordinary Grace occurs in the fictional town of New Bremen, Minnesota — the small hometown of the Drum family. During the steamy summer season, emotions of wonder, fear, frustration, discovery and confusion seem to come in stormy torrents for 13 year-old Frankie Drum, the narrator of the story. In the prologue, the now mature, fifty-three year old Frank Drum recalls the summer of 1961 this way, “It was the summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. You might think I remember that summer as tragic and I do but not completely so. My father used to quote the Greek playwright Aeschylus. ‘He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God’…I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer. About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful grace of God.”
Krueger depicts Frankie Drum not as the typical “Minnesota-nice” youngster but as a feisty kid with a rebellious streak who is not afraid to speak his mind. Frankie knows that his resistant attitude and his propensity for taking the Lord’s name in vain are not the kinds of behaviors that are approved of by his Methodist minister father Nathan, but that doesn’t make him change his ways. Frankie has a younger brother, Jake, whom he sees as a minor irritation in need of his protection, and an older sister, Ariel, whom he admires and loves. His mother, Ruth, is somewhat detached from her family, not having “signed-up” to be the wife of a minister.
From the very beginning of Ordinary Grace, Frankie’s determined personality keeps him informed of and involved in many incidents around town, including the first two deaths which occur that summer in New Bremen. These deaths, one of a stranger, the other a casual acquaintance, are a source of speculation, even fascination, for the curious Frankie. But death will not remain at a safe distance from the Drums. Here the grown-up Frank reminisces, “There’d been two deaths already that summer, and although I didn’t have a clue, there were three more yet to come. And the next would be the most painful to bear.”
Ordinary Grace grows progressively more elegiac with each revelation of the circumstances surrounding the death of a Drum family member. Krueger does a phenomenal job of framing the Drum’s tale of stark tragedy through the honest but understandably puzzled thoughts of Frankie. As life in the Drum home lurches desperately out of control, Frankie’s father seems to be the only family member who, though deeply distressed, can find solid footing in the profound grace and love of God. The sermon which Nathan Drum preaches to his home congregation during this terrible time of upheaval becomes a life anchor for Frankie, and a turning point in the book.
Krueger has the skill of a painter when it comes to describing the town of New Bremen and the surrounding landscape:
“Outside the day sweltered. The sun threw heat from above and the sidewalks gathered it and roasted the souls of our sneakers. The tar that filled the cracks on the pavement had turned to black goo and we were careful to watch our step. We passed Bon Ton’s barbershop where the easy voices of men and the scent of hair oil drifted through the open door. We passed the bank which had been robbed by Pretty Boy Floyd and Ma Barker’s boys in the thirties and which had long been the source of a good deal of my own day dreaming. We passed store after store deserted in the drowse of that hot day in late June. We kept to the shade of the awnings and didn’t talk and Jake stared at the sidewalk and fumed.”
“We didn’t go straight to Halderson’s. Gus took us out of town and over back roads. We flew between fields of corn that stood as high as my waist and that stretched away to the horizon on all sides with hot silver sunlight pouring over their leaves so that they glistened like the endless water of a green sea. And we dipped into the cool shade of hollows where creeks ran beneath leafy canopies of cottonwood and hackberry and birch. We climbed to the top of the ridge that marked the southern boundary of the river valley and below us spread a land full of the promise of a good fall harvest and cut by a river that I understood was the reason for the rich life there…”
Ordinary Grace is a story of brokenness, loss, faith, love, and “the terrible price of wisdom.” In his book, Krueger demonstrates that though life is tragically difficult, it can still be good, and that the awful, and ordinary, grace of God, has the power to sustain us all.
Many thanks to Tracey Finck for recommending Ordinary Grace as a book selection for The Open Table.