It was a 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.”
So begins Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Told in the voice of Frank Drum: thirteen years old, preacher’s son, middle child, and budding juvenile delinquent, this marvelous new book is part mystery and part literary exploration of redemption and grace.
It’s the summer of 1961, and Frank lives in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota with his preacher father, artistic mother, younger brother Jake and beautiful older sister Ariel. Jake has a severe stutter and Ariel is a musical genius, poised on the brink of escaping the small town for Juillard. Frank is caught in the middle. The first death of the summer is that of Bobby Cole, a young boy with some kind of disability (Down’s Syndrome is hinted at). Frank and Jake are drawn into the world of the adults of the town first by Bobby’s death and later by the body of a homeless man they find near the river. These first few deaths and the darkness they hint at intrigue the young boys but then real tragedy strikes the town and Frank finds himself trying to understand the world around him as it seemingly falls apart.
This isn’t a true mystery, the “who-did-it” isn’t that hard to figure out and really isn’t the main point of the novel. It’s more of a literary novel, beautifully written. Yet it’s also a page-turner. I ended up staying up way too late one night in order to finish it. I loved the characters and the voice of Frank. I so enjoyed reading a book with strong themes of redemption and grace and mercy. I found that it provoked me to think deeply. The only part of the novel that didn’t ring completely true to me was the ending. Without giving away spoilers, I’ll just say that I thought that some of the characters came to a place of understanding and forgiveness much more quickly than was realistic in my mind. That’s a small quibble though, it’s really an excellent book. It reminded me somwhat of Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, another mid-western novel with strong themes of redemption told from the perspective of a middle-aged man looking back on a tragic event in his childhood.