Book Review: Ordinary Grace

Submitted 2 years ago
Created by
Katharine Britton

A riveting coming-of-age story, reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, about a summer of loss, awakening, and grace.

When an author begins a novel, he or she needs to decide who’s telling the story: is it the protagonist, some other member of the cast, or an invisible and unnamed narrator? There is no better way to relate a coming-of-age story than from the first person, years after the events that signaled the end of the narrator’s childhood. Harper Lee did this masterfully in To Kill a Mockingbird. So does William Kent Krueger in his marvelous book Ordinary Grace.

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Krueger’s prologue (blessedly short) beckons and tantalizes: “All the death that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks…sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota.” Elmore Leonard advises writers to avoid prologues, as readers tend to skip them. Happily Krueger did not follow Leonard’s advice. It’s hard to pass on a prologue with that opening line, and impossible not to keep reading.

It is the summer of 1961 in rural Minnesota and Krueger sets the mood with a sultry night. “Moonlight pooled on the bedroom floor. Outside the chirr of crickets and other night bugs gave life to the dark. It was not yet July but already hot as blazes.” (Leonard also advises against beginning with the weather. Again, Krueger thankfully ignored him.) Krueger follows this with the “brittle ring” of the telephone: More bad news. Krueger knows precisely how to pull the reader along. By the time Frank informs us that there will be three more deaths that summer “and the next would be the most painful to bear,” we are hooked.

The characters in Ordinary Grace are flawed and endearing. Frank’s brother and constant companion Jake, stutters. His father is shell-shocked (reason never fully explained) from an experience in the service that prompted him to become a minister. Frank’s mother is artistic and not that happy at finding herself unexpectedly married to a minister. Frank’s sister has a harelip, is musically gifted, saintly to her brothers, and sneaks out at night for mysterious assignations. Gus, friend to Frank’s father and advisor to the two boys, is an alcoholic. The list goes on.

Krueger’s narrator Frank is reflecting on a summer past marked by tragic loss, multiple deaths, attempted suicide, familial abuse, abandonment, bullying, and racism: a summer of events that would end anyone’s childhood. The passage of time since that summer allows Frank not only to make sense of the heartbreaking events but to view them in a philosophical light and relate them without self-pity and even with an occasional touch of appropriate humor. Krueger’s prose in this literary mystery is nuanced and lyrical.

While much of Frank’s information comes a little too conveniently from his listening behind hedges and through furnace ducts and heating grates, our narrator acknowledges this, referring to it as his “artfulness.” He tells us, “I wanted to know everything the adults knew and everything they were thinking and I believed it an absolute wrong to be kept in the dark like a child.” It is Frank’s artful and dogged pursuit that comprises the story, as much as the events themselves.

Ordinary Grace won the Edgar Award, considered the most prestigious award issued by the Mystery Writers of America. Don’t be deceived. This novel is as much a coming of age story as a mystery, although Krueger delivers plenty of that.

Available at the Norwich Bookstore and wherever books are sold.





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