A Review of
Ordinary Grace: A Novel
William Kent Krueger
Reviewed by Timothy Stege
Editor’s note: I’ve had this review sitting on my desk for over a week now, but as I picked it up this morning, I was struck by how relevant this novel is in the wake of a tragedy like yesterday’s Boston Marathon bombing. Thanks to Tim Stege for this poignant review!
William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, nestled snugly in 1960s small town Minnesota, is one boy’s recollections, forty years later, of his thirteenth summer. Like most coming-of-age stories, it is a story of family and life and growth and change, but Krueger employs death and loss as the vehicle through which the growth and change travel. This approach is not in itself unique, but what is interesting is the perspective of the grace of God as both beautiful and ugly, comforting and terrifying, sacred and profane. Life can be both beautiful and terrible, and sometimes there is no way to separate the two, as Frederick Buechner writes in his Beyond Words: Daily Readings in the ABCs of Faith: “Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” This could rightly serve as an epigraph for the novel, as a series of terrible events unfold that seem to increase in tragedy, and yet somehow there are still moments of hope and beauty and a grace perhaps ordinary, perhaps amazing, perhaps a bit awful.
When the novel opens, tragedy has already struck the hometown of Frank Drum, the narrator and 13-year old son of Methodist minister Nathan Drum. The prologue opens with, “All the dying that summer began with the death of a child…,” and goes on to talk about that death, but also about the various other forms that death assumed that summer. Certainly one of the losses that summer was the loss of Frank’s innocence as he faces the guises of death and also sees with new and wider eyes the problems, the struggles, the troubles, the brokenness, the dysfunction of so many in his community–and even in his family. He learns that grace comes in difficulty, in suffering, and in sorrow.
After Frank and his younger brother Jake tag along with their father in the middle of the night to the police station so Nathan can get his drunk war buddy Gus out of jail for fighting with the town delinquent Morris, the boys sit on the steps of the church as their father lingers in the church to pray. Frank’s thoughts provide a snapshot of some of the troubles in his own family that summer as well as the grief and brokenness already present in the community as he reflects on his father’s praying that night:
My father would pray for a long time. It was too late for him to go back to bed and too early to fix breakfast. He was a man with a son who stuttered and another probably on his way to becoming a juvenile delinquent and a daughter with a harelip who sneaked in at night from God knew where and a wife who resented his profession. Yet I knew it was not for himself or for any of us that he was praying.
Frank suggests rather that it was for grieving parents and his drunk friend and the belligerent delinquent that his father was praying. His father was likely, “Praying on their behalf. Praying I suppose for the awful grace of God.”
For Frank, and the rest of his family, this awful grace becomes all too real as the summer unfolds and the face of death comes much closer to home. The central question becomes, how does one heal and move forward in the midst of tragedy? As one tragedy leads to another and closely guarded secrets are brought into the open, the collateral damage to the lives of the people around Frank grows exponentially. Family and community members grapple with their various losses through bitterness, anger, hatred, prejudice, violence, and depression.
Somehow, though at least some of his family does not initially weather the storm well, they begin to navigate their way forward through the suffering together. A telling moment in the early healing process is when Frank is confessing to his father some guilt that was tearing him up and instead of anger he receives what can only be described as grace. Frank is taken aback and asks his dad if he is mad. His father replies, “I’m ready to be done with anger, Frank. I’m ready to be done with it forever. How about you?”
Maybe this is the awful grace of God. Frank’s father tells him that it is not awful in a negative way, in the sense of it being horrible and unpleasant in itself. It is awful because it is beyond understanding. Because it is a grace that breaks loose in the middle of unspeakable pain and allows laughter. Because it is a grace that enables people to bear up under staggering loss and experience joy.
Krueger does a wonderful job of not only telling a beautiful and engaging story, but of revealing in even the smallest of ways how grace enters into brokenness and loss and grief and provides hope. This sense of grace may be best seen through Frank’s younger brother Jake. Toward the end of the novel, when Frank is still grappling with feelings of doubt and anger and justice, Jake has moved on to acceptance and forgiveness. In fact, this story may be Jake’s coming-of-age story and not Frank’s after all. Jake increasingly overcomes his struggles and displays increasing maturity and wisdom in the family’s crisis. In a powerful scene where Jake is displaying compassion and understanding beyond his years, Frank reflects, “Jake looked at me and I saw no child left in him at all.” In that moment Jake is able to take this awful grace of God that has been bestowed upon his family and share it with another broken and lost individual. That, to me, is well beyond ordinary.