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Monday, April 7, 2014

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

Atria Books, $16, 336 pages

Ordinary Grace has been nominated for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Novel. It has already won the Dilys Award, presented by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association (IMBA).

Kent Krueger visited MBTB several times. The last time he appeared, he was excited to pass out advanced reading copies (ARC) of his latest book, Ordinary Grace. It is not part of his award-winning Cork O’Connor series but one that he joyfully developed over the space of a few years. It is a book from his heart, he said. Krueger is a deeply religious man, so not surprisingly it represents Krueger’s spirituality, his own gift of grace.

The story is told from the viewpoint of a 13-year-old boy, Frank Drum, and concerns events during the hot summer of 1961, in New Bremen, Minnesota, a fictional town supposedly just west of Mankato. Frank, 11-year-old brother Jake, and 18-year-old sister Ariel are children of a Methodist minister and his wife, Nathan and Ruth Drum.

The summer begins with the death of a young, mentally handicapped boy who was hit by a train. And so begins Frank’s summer when death challenges him to understand his own morality, mortality, and spirituality. Then a hobo dies on the banks of the Minnesota River. There is nothing suspicious about either death, but Frank and Jake are of an age when they wonder about the darkness that lurks on the edges of some psyches.

The Drum family is surrounded by family and friends, and in Ruth’s case, there's a history with many of the people in the town of her youth. When a tragedy hits closer to home, the Drum family is devastated. It is especially wrenching when this time it is obviously a case of murder. Everything and everyone seems sinister then to Frank.

Ordinary Grace is a coming-of-age story written by a master. Krueger contrasts death and intolerance with idyllic glimpses of a Norman Rockwell America. Doors aren’t locked, Little League baseball is played and cheered on in the heat of summer, root beer sloshes in frosted glasses, Main Street prospers with an Andy Hardy/Andy Taylor essence. “Be back home before dark,” Frank and Jake’s father says to them, in a time-long-gone admonition.

It’s not totally or even that everyone of that time was more virtuous, it’s that sometimes the darkness had no public name or its danger was willfully unrecognized.

Surely Frank matures more than ordinarily possible in those three months of summer. Krueger gives us a luminous lesson in love, grief, forgiveness, and kindness. He also hands us a treat when he finally explains what the title of his book means.

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