Ordinary Grace by William Kent Kruger
Publication Year: 2013
Genre: Fiction, Mystery
Awards: Anthony Award for Best Novel (2014), Edgar Award for Best Novel (2014)
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Format: Audio (from Audible)
Narrator: Rich Orlow
WHY?: A work colleague recommended this author to me a few years ago, specifically for the Cork O'Connor mystery series which includes a lot of natural history. Plus, Krueger lives just to the north of me in Minnesota. This book is a stand alone (not part of the Cork O'Connor series) but many think it is his best book. The fact that it won two of the most prestigious mystery novel awards supports that consensus! I think I bought this during one of Audible's sales.
SYNOPSIS: The book takes place in a single summer during the 1950s in a small town in Minnesota. The narrator is Frank, as a 40 year old, recounting the events of the summer he was 14 and his whole life changed.
How many books have I read that follow just this format? Middle-aged man (or less often woman) looking back on a crucial, coming-of-age moment during their small town childhood? Dozens at least during my reading life. Despite that I almost always enjoy them and this is a particularly excellent example of this type of story. It is written beautifully, has a perfectly imperfect narrator whose voice is just right, a cast of lovingly crafted characters, a mystery at its heart and plenty of ideas for the mind to wrestle with.
As I started it I admit was a little nervous. Frank's father, Nathan, is a minister and there are a lot of Christian overtones to the book. I am not anti-religion but a book with a strong religious message can sometimes go sideways with me. Thankfully Krueger handles all with grace and kindness. The Christianity presented here is the type that makes me think about going back to the church. Frank's dad is one of the best characters in the book, an Atticus Finch type character, all about forgiveness and love for all despite, or maybe because of, being a veteran of World War II. His sermon's are where some of the most beautiful prose appears in the book and they brought tears to my eyes. Here are two of my favorites, both of them centered around death and mortality which is a major theme of the book (I apologize - they are long but I have to highlight them):
“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. We are never separated from his love. And he promised us something else, the most important promise of all. That there would be surcease. That there would be an end to our pain and our suffering and our loneliness, that we would be with him and know him, and this would be heaven.”
“It isn’t Easter,” he said, “but this week has caused me to think a lot about the Easter story. Not the glorious resurrection that we celebrate on Easter Sunday but the darkness that came before. I know of no darker moment in the Bible than the moment Jesus in his agony on the cross cries out, ‘Father, why have you forsaken me?’ Darker even than his death not long after because in death Jesus at last gave himself over fully to the divine will of God. But in that moment of his bitter railing he must have felt betrayed and completely abandoned by his father, a father he’d always believed loved him deeply and absolutely. How terrible that must have been and how alone he must have felt. In dying all was revealed to him, but alive Jesus like us saw with mortal eyes, felt the pain of mortal flesh, and knew the confusion of imperfect mortal understanding. “I see with mortal eyes. My mortal heart this morning is breaking. And I do not understand. “I confess that I have cried out to God, ‘Why have you forsaken me?’ ” Here my father paused and I thought he could not continue. But after a long moment he seemed to gather himself and went on. “When we feel abandoned, alone, and lost, what’s left to us? What do I have, what do you have, what do any of us have left except the overpowering temptation to rail against God and to blame him for the dark night into which he’s led us, to blame him for our misery, to blame him and cry out against him for not caring? What’s left to us when that which we love most has been taken? “I will tell you what’s left, three profound blessings. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul tells us exactly what they are: faith, hope, and love. These gifts, which are the foundation of eternity, God has given to us and he’s given us complete control over them. Even in the darkest night it’s still within our power to hold to faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may ourselves feel unloved we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control. God gave us these gifts and he does not take them back. It is we who choose to discard them. “In your dark night, I urge you to hold to your faith, to embrace hope, and to bear your love before you like a burning candle, for I promise that it will light your way. “And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may not be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day. “Jesus suffered the dark night and death and on the third day he rose again through the grace of his loving father. For each of us, the sun sets and the sun also rises and through the grace of our Lord we can endure our own dark night and rise to the dawning of a new day and rejoice. “I invite you, my brothers and sisters, to rejoice with me in the divine grace of the Lord and in the beauty of this morning, which he has given us.”
The second quote in particular made me completely fall apart in public. I've lost people close to me and this spoke to my heart so forcefully. It's an incredible moment and it is one of the clearest points which illuminates Nathan's character. The entire secondary cast, particularly Frank's mother, his little brother Jake, and his big sister Ariel are also fleshed out and interesting, their relationships with each other forming the foundation of the book's story. Frank himself is a great narrator - a blend of his very different parents he represents the innocence of a boy as well as childishness which slowly gets stripped away as the events force him to grow up.
I hope that the quotes make clear as well that despite death being a major theme of the book, it is mostly infused with hope and is not overly dark or depressing. In fact, it is a very propulsive read - the mystery at its heart did not overwhelm the coming of age story but definitely made the book a page-turner (or a can't stop listening-er).
The depiction of small town Minnesota in the 1950s felt very authentic. Idyllic in ways but not at all viewed through rose-tinted glasses. I especially appreciated that the book showed the lingering effects of World War II on the population. I've read a lot of books set in England that have dealt with this but few set in the U.S.
In short the book combines the best elements of a page-turning mystery with beautiful prose and a contemplation of growing up and losing loved ones and seeing the world with love, forgiveness and hope. Really well done.
I listened to the audio book and Rich Orlow, the reader, was great. His voice fit the tone of the book well and I enjoyed listening to him.
FINAL VERDICT: A lovely coming of age story with a mystery at its heart that will entertain and inspire thought. 4 out of 5 Stars