Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Ordinary Grace -- William Kent Krueger

Set in 1961, Ordinary Grace gives us an over-the-shoulder look into one heartbreaking summer in the life of cozy Bremen, Minnesota and the people who inhabit it. Over the course of the novel, many people die either by accident or intent, and while most of these deaths are not directly related, they all reverberate off one another in some fashion. 

It repeatedly falls to soft-spoken Methodist minister Nathan Drum to try to provide a measure of spiritual light when so many senseless tragedies threaten the peace of his town and of his own family.

The story is told by his son Frank some forty years after the events took place, but who in that summer was a typical thirteen year old boy who enjoys dropping an occasional cuss word just to impress his little brother, Jake. Jake is as reserved as Frank is full-throttle, a reserve born of his stuttering. Their older sister Ariel is destined for Julliard when the novel begins. Their mother Ruth never expected to be a minister's wife when she married Nathan, but it's a role she takes on with love.... and the occasional cigarette smoked in private.

In short, you really come to like everybody in this family. They are golden but not too golden.

It's when tragedy strikes close to home that the careful construct of their lives begins to show cracks. We understand those cracks--they are the ones that make believers question their faith, the ones that make non-believers secure in their belief that if there is a God, He surely is wanting in the fairness department.

It is through these cracks, though, that some of the most luminous prose in the novel breaks forth.

"...ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that
 keeps us upright and connected until the worst is past."

I suspect we all have a person in our lives who blows us away sometimes with their wisdom and insight, that sort of person who can get to the heart of a matter while everybody else is standing around looking at the floor when the hard questions get asked. It's also often true that no matter how lovely that person is there is something about them that irritates the stew out of you. Maybe they always forget to take off their sunglasses even when they are inside, or they don't floss and it shows. You love them. You respect them. You wish you had their gift for speaking truth. But you just wish...... well, you know.

This book is an awful lot like that friend. There were elements in the narrative that were jarring to me, that didn't seem plausible given the time in which it was set. The use of expletives by characters who were talking with the pastor bothered me, because most people, even with today's more casual mores, exercise some deference to men and women of the cloth. A matter of a character's sexuality was met with a great deal more understanding and shrug of the shoulders than seemed plausible, given the setting of the novel. And finally, the fact that Frank is present (with permission of his father) when details of an unspeakable crime are being presented for the first time in a private meeting just had me shaking my head.

Those things aside, though, Ordinary Grace was an irresistible read. I was charmed by its nostalgic warmth, moved nearly to tears by some of its most splendid moments (Rev. Drum's eulogy at one funeral is so exquisite that I want it read at mine), and was caught up in the multiple mysteries that arose.

Ultimately, the power of the story was not diluted overmuch by these shortcomings, which might not even bother other readers. This wasn't a perfect book, but I am glad to have read it, and happy to recommend it to others.

1 comment:

  1. Ordinary Grace has been on my nightstand for months -- why haven't I picked it up? Thanks for your thoughtful review. I'm moving it to the top of the stack!