There are a ton of reasons why I picked up Ordinary Grace, an unusual novel by William Kent Krueger, who ordinarily writes mysteries (Cork O'Connor) that place him bountifully on the New York Times best seller lists. One of those reasons isn't because the novel is a mystery. I should be less parochial in choosing books now that I'm retired, less madly driven by realism and regionalism and spirituality. Pardon me for living (in the Midwest).
Ordinary Grace seemed right down my alley: coming of age, rural Minnesota, historically pitched (1961), and that title, Ordinary Grace--good night, a growing-up novel about grace that isn't a Christian novel. What's more, it's set right here, up north. I bought, I read, I liked--but didn't love.
The thought at the heart of the novel--and there is such a thought, an idea, I mean--is a quote from Aeschylus: "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God." Therewith hangs the tale.
Let's be clear here--the quote is interesting and even inviting. If you're going to generate a story that means to demonstrate God's "awful grace," I'm all ears, not because I think grace is awful, but because it seems to me that what ye olde Greek playwright had to mean was "awe-ful," to wit, that God's grace is not awful, as in yucch, but "awe-ful," as in "an eternity beyond our understanding." I'm buying that.
To make his point (and I'm not fond of books that do, btw), Krueger creates a summer of death in the life of a preacher's kid named Frank Drum, who is, as advertised, on the cusp of manhood. A friend dies--a younger kid sort of known for his daydreamyness, but he's only the first to go in the community of New Bremen, Minnesota, right there along the Minnesota River. There will be blood galore.
The toll rises but the one that rips the heart out of the Drum family is big sister Ariel, a talented musician and breathless romantic. Her death is the story in Ordinary Grace, the event that tests everyone and everything--love, friendship, community, faith. Even though Ordinary Grace isn't a mystery, it is: it's about a murder, and it includes, as all good mysteries do, a gallery of potential killers. What Frank Drum has to discover--and readers with him--is, well, whodunit.
I think Krueger's evocation of a small, Midwestern town, circa 1961, is on the money. Been there, done that. I liked the complex characters you meet--a little brother, an innocent, with a stuttering problem; a truly righteous father who hasn't a lick of self-righteousness and hides his own painful war-time secrets; a Native radical, a Dakota, who gets his licks in on the white folks who took his land long ago; a really despicable Richy Rich type, complete with speedy sports car; a broken, blind musical genius who's returned to his Minnesota roots after a career that, tragically, made him almost famous; a boy who's becoming a man. And there are more.
But here's why I was less than thrilled. Krueger runs into the problem all such novels encounter when they become first-person tales: he's limited by what experiences Frank Drum can actually witness. Third-person narration allows all kinds of omniscience; first-person has a wonderful immediacy, but you can't put a narrator just anywhere because, simply stated, we're not omniscient. And that's why young Frank is constantly listening in to people--through heating ducts or open windows or with a door between them. It's not because he's a busybody (we're all busybodies), but because Krueger knows darn well that Frank has to be present at some conversations to know things he needs to to solve the crime. And it gets tiring. Someone's in church visiting with his father, and Frank finds a way to listen in. Interesting once, but when it happens a dozen times in a novel, you know the writer is pushing.
And Krueger pushes in the novel. He's willing to make adjustments in his vision of things that make the novel itself suffer. He says in an interview with Audible.com that he knows he couldn't use the phrase "awful grace" for a title--after all, who the heck would buy the novel? So he went with "Ordinary Grace," which is far more appealing, of course, and much softer. But there's night-and-day difference between ordinary and awful; and if you're really pitching awful in the novel, ordinary just won't carry the weight, or so it seems to me. So he skimps--and it hurts.
Most Minnesotans would likely pick up the prototype for New Bremen since Krueger--thoughtfully in 2012--clearly uses the town of New Ulm, where, in 1862 (exactly 150 years before publication), rampaging Dakota warriors, their families starving, their culture in jeopardy, their land reduced to a sliver of river valley, tried to kill all their paleface invaders, the first bloody round of the Great Sioux Wars.
Krueger brings that whole horror up--and there is prejudice and hate by whites for the remnant Native population--but it feels almost obligatory. He skimps. The Dakota War seems like window dressing.
And the reason is clear. William Kent Krueger didn't want another Cork O'Connor this time, another plot set by the boundaries of the mystery genre. He wanted instead to let his own writing instincts loose on "the awful grace of God." And that's commendable.
Does he do it? Sure. Frank's father's war wounds create a heart of gold, a forgiving heart--he's as fine a warm-hearted preacher as you'll find anywhere in Midwest fiction, maybe even a bit too fine.
Somehow, I'm not convinced. I liked the novel, but doggone it!--I wanted to love it.
All that having been said, I'm still envious. It's a good read, and I wish I'd written it.
I think I'll try Cork O'Connor.