Sunday, October 30, 2016

Staff Review: Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

One of the great things about working in a library is that you get to track the books that everyday readers -- not reviewers, prize panels, or critics -- genuinely love, titles like The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah or All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr or, recently, just about every title released by Frederik Backman. I always take note of these books, so I can recommend them to others but also so I can eventually get to them myself. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is one such book.

Published in 2013, it's beautifully written, warm-hearted, poignant, and suspenseful. It's a standalone work by an author best known for his Cork O'Connor mystery series set up in northern Minnesota, a series that is also well-loved. Krueger is known for his evocative descriptions of landscapes and places and his incorporation of Native American characters and culture into his books, both features prominent in Ordinary Grace.

The novel relates the events of one hot summer in Minnesota in 1961. Kennedy is president and the mood of the country hopeful, but the sleepy town of New Bremen experiences a series of unfortunate -- no, make that tragic -- events.

We see these incidents unfold through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, son of the town's Methodist minister, whose family is a happy one despite the usual assortment of disappointments and challenges: Frank's mom, an aspiring singer, isn't thrilled to have landed in a backwater leading a church choir; Frank's spiritually gifted younger brother struggles with a stutter; Frank's brilliant older sister bears the scars of a surgically repaired hairlip; Frank's father conceals psychic scars from the second World War. All five family members are very well drawn and the large supporting cast of townspeople is rendered just as skillfully.   

Frank begins the summer a regular kid, pre-occupied with baseball and the usual early-teen boy things. Then, a series of three unrelated deaths occur that cause his world to crack open. These deaths set off a chain of further unfortunate events, perhaps to an extent that stretches the reader's credulity just a bit. I was willing to suspend my disbelief because Krueger writes so well, in such convincing detail, and with so much compassion. He keeps the reader turning pages too, to find out who did what to whom. But what he really examines through these plot detonations is the harsh truth that awful things do happen to good people, but those people can find the strength and courage -- and enough ordinary grace in this world -- to go on.

There's nothing saccharine about Krueger's cast or facile in the ways they cope in the aftermath. Krueger offers no easy answers. His people are flawed, they spend nights in the drunk tank, they make big mistakes, they can't always forgive. But they are caring and authentic and thoughtful. In the end there is something so life-affirming in the world Krueger creates. His book is exquisitely graceful.

~ Ann, Adult Services    

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