Book review – Ordinary Grace

I’ve let over a month go by without posting anything. Life’s been pretty hectic but I hope that usual service will resume. So…

Ordinary Grace (2013) by American author William Kent Krueger starts with the simple phrase, ‘All the dying that summer began with the death of a child…’. At this point you’re not sure about how the book will unravel; whether it’s a crime thriller or something of a more supernatural nature, like Stephen King’s It.

What follows is a description of the summer of 1961 seen through the eyes of thirteen year-old Frank Drum. Drum’s sidekick along the way is younger brother Jake, though we spend a fair bit of time with the rest of the family: prodigious elder sibling Ariel, and parents Nathan, the town’s pastor, and Ruth, who’s taken upon herself the direction of the church choir and the town’s cultural events. The Drums are central to the community of New Bremen, where, through Nathan’s calling, death is a common part of life. It’s Frank, however, who in the summer of ’61 was seemingly at the heart of the tragedies visited upon the town.

The Brandts are another key family in Krueger’s story. Not only are they a pivotal player in the town’s economy but they’re connected to the Drum’s through local celebrity Emil, a famous pianist, who’s mentor to the prodigious Ariel and former lover of Ruth. Emil, who became blind in the Korean war, is looked after by his deaf sister, Lise, who has a special bond with Jake, through their inability to communicate with others. Furthermore, Ariel is in a relationship with Karl, Emil’s nephew.

As with many a book set in a small town, we also have the usual selection of local characters, including Nathan’s army comrade and confidante to Frank and Jake, Gus, and the local reprobate, Morris Engdahl. That’s not to say that any of theses characters are superficial. They all play their role perfectly as do the key protagonists.

I read on Krueger’s Wikipedia page that his favourite book is To Kill a Mockingbird. This doesn’t surprise me one bit. One can quite easily see ‘Scout’ and Atticus Finch in the characters of Frank and Nathan Drum, respectively. On reading Ordinary Grace, other books also came to mind, including Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend, and Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which is exalted company.

At its heart the book is a coming-of-age story which is perfectly rendered by Krueger. Whether or not it ranks among those books mentioned above is academic, few do. What matters is whether it’s worth reading and this book most definitely is. Highly recommended.