All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota.
Thus begins Ordinary Grace, the first novel I am recommending here in I Like It, my new blog of books and other things I like. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is probably the best faith-based novel I have read in a decade, possibly longer. The characters who people this story are not the stereotypical ones sometimes found in so-called Christian/inspirational novels. There was no happy ending here where “everyone gets saved,” and we sigh with relief as we shut the book, happy that it all worked out.
No. Thirteen year old Frank, the story’s narrator, his minister father Nathan, mother Ruth, and brother and sister plus the other townspeople stayed with me long after I finished the last page. These were ordinary people dealing with real situations where God seems very absent. I think we’ve all been there.
I purchased Ordinary Grace and read it when it came out in 2013, and then a year later when it was my personal choice for the bookclub I belong to. I led the discussion on the morning it was my turn. A lot of these thoughts are from that gathering.
This book represents my favorite kind of reading, well-written mysteries, literary whodunits on the order of Ruth Rendell, Dennis Lehane and others. I enjoy books where the language holds onto me as much as the story and in Ordinary Grace Krueger is a master. I could sink into each word of this book and never want to leave.
Consider these stunning word pictures:
I heard the water run in the sink and the clatter of plate and fork as my mother laid them there and I heard silence and I imagined her turning back to my father still sitting at the table…
They continued to talk and I watched Jake and Lise in the garden and listened to Ariel clicking away on the typewriter in the study, and the world inside that picket fence seemed like a good place, a place in which all the damaged pieces somehow fit.
Loss, once it’s become a certainty, it’s like a rock you hold in your hand. It has weight and dimension and texture. It’s solid and can be assessed and dealt with. You can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away.
The story is set during one summer in 1961, called the summer of dying. Even though I’ve never been in Minnesota for any length of time, I identified with it. Frank was 13 during the summer of 1961. I was 11, and—this is foremost—I grew up in a minister’s home. In 1961 pastor’s kids were to “set the example.” I know well, that pressure on PKs (Preacher’s Kids). Back then a minister’s family had to be perfect. People were watching. People were always watching, but when we could, we escaped. We were kids, after all. And those were the years when parents never really paid attention to where children went, and of course, the woods were filled with monsters. I smiled at these kind of shared memories through the book.
Minister Natham Drum is a good and honest man who simply seeks to do the best he can for his parishioners with the hand he’s been dealt - a couple of independent and curious sons, a fairly wayward, but musically talented daughter and a talented wife who doesn’t want to be part of the story at all.
When she married her husband, he was studying to be a lawyer. She never quite gets over his sudden decision to change gears and go into the ministry. She lets it be known that she never “signed on” for this, and in her rebellious moments she smokes on the porch, a fact that does not go unnoticed by church people.
Through the years I’ve known many pastor’s wives. Some have been my closest friends. His portrayal of Ruth is very real. My own mother was never allowed to have personal “friends” within the congregations my father pastored, fearing that would show favoritism. Thankfully, that little taboo is gone today. But it would have been there in some form or other in 1961. Ruth would have felt it.
I mentioned this was the best faith-based novel I have read in a decade or more. When I was writing Christian novels (I no longer do), I tried to make my novels as realistic as I could within the confines of my publisher. I feel I mostly succeeded, but when I couldn’t any longer, when I couldn’t say what I wanted to say, I decided I needed to leave the Christian publishing world altogether. (Did Christian publishing change? Did I change? Maybe a little of both.) My goal, however, is to write this kind of “faith-based’ novel, the kind of faith I see in Ordinary Grace. Sometimes God does move away from us, and things get really, really sad. And sometimes they don’t get better for a long, long time. Krueger would call this the “awful grace of God,” a phrase he uses five times in the book (Ah, don’t you love the internal search functions eBooks have now!)
The book begins:
In the end maybe that’s what the summer was about. I was no older than Bobby and didn’t understand such things then. I’ve come four decades since but I’m not sure that even now I fully understand. I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer. About the terrible price of wisdom, the awful grace of God.
The book ends:
We turn, three men, bound by love, by history, by circumstance, and most certainly by the awful grace of God, and together we walk a narrow lane…”
Krueger mentions that this phrase comes from Greek playwright Aeschylus, and according to that bastion of all knowledge, Wikipedia, he is considered the father of the tragedy.
Here’s what Aeschylus writes:
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.
In other words, we learn from tragedy. With deep tragedy, such as occurred during the summer of this book, comes great wisdom. The deeper the tragedy, the more wisdom. Hmm.
Here’s from one of Nathan’s, sermons, “God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn’t suffer, that we wouldn’t feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence, he is beside us and around us and within us always…”
I’ve written so long here about the faith aspects of this book, the characters, my own journey, that I haven’t had time to talk much about the mystery in this book. And, yes, there is one. Fans of Krueger’s Cork O’Connor series will not be disappointed. But to forestall any spoilers, I will just say, read it to find out why 1961 was called the Summer of Dying.
I know Kent Kruger a little bit—well, we’ve had a few conversations at mystery conferences, does that count? Would he remember me? I’d like to think yes, but the answer is probably no. We used to have the same agent, so we had a it of commonality for a while. He is a gracious man, friendly, and I understand he is now working on some sort of companion novel to Ordinary Grace. I will be looking for it.
As an added bonus click here for a free Christmas story by Krueger.
Next time: Another “coming of age” novel - The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker, another one of my bookclub choices.