Monday, March 25, 2013

NEW STUFF: Ordinary Grace - William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Atria Books/Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 978-1451645828
320 pp. $24.99
Publication date: March 26, 2013

Memory as we all know can play tricks on us. We like to think that there was a time in our past that was " the good ol' days" usually turning to a brief period in our early to late teens. There is a nostalgia for this time that is often distorted with an ample amount of good memories but nothing troubling, unpleasant or -- heaven forbid -- nightmarish. And there is a type of fiction that likes to travel down these nostalgic byways and allow the reader to bask in a fictional past that approaches an idyllic Eden of bliss and contentment. William Kent Krueger 's most recent novel Ordinary Grace (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2013) dares to be a nostalgic novel that starts not with the pleasant but with the horrific.

At the start of the novel in a foreword written in Frank Drum's adult voice we immediately know that the tale he is about to relate about a specific summer from his teen years is one in which Death paid several visits to his hometown and he and his brother learned that summer usually a time for carefree pursuits can be an unsafe and haunting time of the year. For Frank and Jake is it a summer of losses and gains.

Loss, once it's become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand. It has weight and dimension and texture. It's solid and can be assessed and dealt with. You can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away. The uncertainty of Ariel's disappearance was vastly different. It surrounded us and clung to us. We breathed it in and breathed it out and we were never sure of its composition.
In a departure from his series featuring series character Cork O'Connor Krueger has written a stand alone novel that is a Minnesota version of To Kill a Mockingbird. Two siblings learn to deal with the brutality of adult crime while simultaneously having their strong moral upbringing put to the test. The twist in Krueger's version is that Frank and Jake Drum have not a lawyer for a father but a Methodist minister. The law of the land does not serve as the background as much as the Law of God does. Tests of faith and moral convictions are at the root of the entire story.

Frank, the elder brother is an outspoken, impetuous, rascal of a teenager while his younger brother Jake is the contemplative, well behaved, voice of reason. He is the embodiment of Frank's conscience and a walking model of Reverend Drum's Sunday sermons. He is constantly reminding Frank not to swear, not to use the Lord's name in vain, not to think ill of others. Frank, on the other hand, rarely listens. He taunts and teases Jake and is constantly leading his brother away from the straight and narrow path. Frank serves as a model of teenage rebellion daring Jake to let loose and misbehave like when he hands Jake a baseball bat and asks him to get even with the town bully by smashing the headlights on the jerk's souped up vintage sports car. Jake gives in occasionally, but usually is seen standing back, remaining silent, preferring the morally right option no matter what the cost. The two of them will pay the consequences for choosing their paths and by the novel's shocking climax will learn to meet at the crossroads of blind obedience and non-conformist independence.

The story begins with the mention of three deaths – accident, suicide and murder – providing the basis for the most elementary mystery for the reader. Which death is which? But this is no traditional whodunnit or puzzle mystery. There is so much more that awaits the patient reader.

The most fascinating aspect of the story is how Krueger deals with a variety of societal outcasts. Jake stutters and has a very difficult time making himself understood when he gets anxious. Then there is Lise, sister of reclusive musician and piano tutor Emil Brandt, who is described by the locals as a crazy woman but is more compassionately described by the adult voice of Frank as "someone who must have been autistic though we were not as familiar with that disorder as we are now." There is an almost supernatural bond that exists between Lise and Jake. She will not allow anyone to touch her or speak to her but Jake. And this eleven year old boy, wise beyond his years (at times making him a bit too much to take), is the only person in town who can calm her down when she explodes in one of her frightening tantrums.

And there is Warren Redstone, a member of the Dakota tribe. During the murder investigation Redstone becomes the prime suspect. Frank and Jake have previously met the man under a bridge which serves as the focal point for all the violent deaths. They had a disturbing encounter with him there and Frank's imagination gets the better of him when he sees the man put his hand ever so briefly on Jake's leg. When they have their second encounter with him, with police in hot pursuit of all three, Frank will surprise himself by letting Redstone escape. That action will plague Frank's conscience for the remainder of the book. Whether or not it turned out to be the best decision he could have made I leave for the reader to discover.

Ordinary Grace takes its title from a brief episode towards the end of the book in which Mrs. Drum asks her husband "For God's sake, Nathan, can't you, just this once, offer an ordinary grace" before a meal is eaten at a funeral reception. Remarkably, a few minutes later a small miracle takes place in the presence of the entire congregation. It is both poignant and predictable and yet altogether satisfying. There are other examples of miracles throughout the book prior to this scene, some barely noticeable others astonishing in their magnitude. All of them serve as Krueger's belief that somewhere within all of us is an ordinary grace that can lead to unexpected, sometimes wondrous, events.


  1. I'm not a fan of the Cork books - tried reading one once and just couldn't get into it - but that doesn't mean I might not try again at some point. Lots of people have recommended the books.

    But this stand-alone sounds like something I might like, John. Thanks for your usual well thought out review. I am tempted. The title is going on my list. For sure.

    1. I think you'll find something worthwhile here, Yvette. I thought perhaps the religious element was going to overtake the book and I might abandon it, but I was surprised where Krueger took his story.

  2. Darn and I could have gotten a kindle version of this book on sale last week and passed it up!

  3. My copy just arrived today, had been on pre-order, so how you got yours and read it so fast I don't know. I didn't read your review because I'm afraid of spoilers, but the book is very high on my TBR.
    - Richard

    1. I received a review copy, Rick. The pleasures of being a blogger with connections!

  4. Since you compared this to To Kill a Mockingbird, I can tell you really liked it. I wasn't going to try a standalone by this author, especially as I have not tried any of the the series yet (I just purchased Iron Lake). But you have convinced me to try this book sometime in the future.