Book Review: Ordinary Grace
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.
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
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
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.