Written by William Kent Krueger — William Kent Krueger is already well known for his Cork O’Conner mystery series, but he has given us something a little bit different in Ordinary Grace.
It’s the summer of 1961 in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota, where 13-year-old Frank Drum lives with his younger brother Jake, older sister Ariel, his mother Ruth, and his father Nathan, who is a pastor at three local churches. Frank’s mother is an accomplished musician who expected to marry a lawyer, but his father returned from WWII a changed man, and felt the church was where he belonged. Her disappointment is sometimes palpable, but she loves singing and playing for the church services, and sees in Ariel the possibility to live her dreams through her daughter, who will be going to the private conservatory Julliard soon.
Their lives are mostly happy, and summer is always a wonderful time for children, with the promise of no school and months of freedom, but this summer is different. The body of sweet, mentally challenged little Bobby Cole has been found, broken by an oncoming train. Was it an accident? After all he was given to playing on the tracks and should have been able to move out of the way of an oncoming train. With a lack of evidence to the contrary, however, the police are at a loss. Bobby Cole’s death is a dark harbinger of things to come that summer, and for Frank Drum, it will prove to be a transformative one.
Ordinary Grace is told in Frank’s voice, 40 years after the events of 1961, so as well as getting the point of view of his 13-year-old self, we also get an older, wiser take on events. This rounds out the narrative nicely and adds depth to the story. Immediately after the death of Bobby Cole, Frank and Jake come across the body of a homeless man lying under a trestle, and although Frank has attended his share of funerals, he’s never actually seen a dead body. It makes an indelible impression on him.
These two deaths are only the beginning, and when his older sister Ariel disappears after a party one night, a search begins. At first, Frank sees the search as a great adventure, that will end with his sister revealing herself to be safe and sound. Suspicion falls on a local bully that Frank has had run ins with in the past, but it soon shifts to Karl Brandt, the son of a prominent local family who was dating Ariel. Karl is the nephew of Emil Brandt who not only tutors Ariel in her music but is the man that Frank’s mother almost married, until he abandoned her, went to war, and came back blind and scarred.
Both of Frank’s parents are close to Emil and Jake is especially close to Emil’s deaf sister Lise. Frank is at a loss as to where to look for clues about Ariel’s disappearance, but things aren’t always as they seem, and what he hears and what he sees can be two very different things. In a small town where everyone seems to know everything, Frank and his family discover secrets that could tear them apart and threaten their faith and everything they hold dear.
Ordinary Grace is a mystery, yes, but it’s ultimately the story of a young boy’s coming of age surrounded by devastating tragedy and loss. He discovers that even in the midst of such grief, beauty can be found in forgiveness, and grace in the smallest of things, and in the most unlikely people. Inevitable comparisons will be made to Stand By Me, and that’s not far off the mark. Beautifully written and at times heart breaking, Ordinary Grace is a must-read for mystery and literary fans alike.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars