Somewhere in the “broad valley of the Minnesota River” nestles the fictional town of New Bremen, home to the Drums and the Brandts, two families separated by class, whose lives collide in tragedy in William Kent Krueger’s “Ordinary Grace.” Set during the summer of 1961 (the year the Twins first play in Minnesota), this is a touching coming-of-age novel about family, faith and the empathy that can come from a violent loss.
That Krueger, an acclaimed mystery writer and Twin Cities native, chose to explore this new territory (geography and genre) isn’t a surprise to me. I’ve always thought his mysteries featuring Cork O’Connor were evidence of Krueger’s distinctive moral imagination (the series is steeped in compassion for those caught in the clash of cultures and traditions). The best coming-of-age novels share this moral sensibility, exploring events and their epiphanies that propel characters from childhood to adulthood, from innocence to awareness.
In “Ordinary Grace,” the novel’s middle-aged narrator, Frank Drum, tells of the summer when, at 13, a child being killed by a train was the catalyst for a series of tragic events that brought his family and the Brandts to their knees, baptizing them in the “awful grace of God.”
“When you look back at a life,” explains Frank, “what you see is a path that weaves in and out of deep shadow.” And to construct a narrative from that past, you must build from what “stands in the light” as well as what you “imagine in the dark.” The result is a story told in sepia tones. Like looking at old photographs in a family album, Krueger’s descriptions and details evoke a past tinged with sadness but colored with hope.
“Loss,” says Frank toward the novel’s end, “once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand … you can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away.”
At times, “Ordinary Grace” reminded me of Stephen King’s novella “The Body” (also set in the 1960s with a middle-aged narrator reflecting on a childhood quest for a boy killed by a train); but whereas King’s story has four boys at its center, Krueger has created a cast of compelling characters (young and old), each in his or her own way searching for something, including the narrator’s father, the town’s Methodist pastor, and his mother, whose bold personality worries his congregation.
Although Krueger’s plot rises to a predictable conclusion, there’s such a quiet beauty in his prose and such depth to his characters that I was completely captivated by this book’s ordinary grace.
Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee and is the co-author of “Hollow Earth.”