Book Review: ORDINARY GRACE by William Kent Krueger

When I pluck a title from my stack of purchased-but-not-yet-read books (mostly fiction, generally soft-cover), I begin by examining the book itself. I study the back cover copy, the author’s head shot, the biographical note. I open the front, flip to the copyright page, find the publication date, glance at the dedication.

Many authors follow the dedication page with a quote (or quotes) from famous writers or thinkers.

William Kent Krueger, author of ORDINARY GRACE, gives us a line by Blaise Pascal,* then takes literary reference a step further, launching the novel with a Prologue written in the voice of the story’s narrator—a grown man recalling events from the summer he was thirteen. The narrator, Frank Drum, tells us that his father (who we soon learn was a Methodist minister) often quoted the Greek playwright Aeschylus:

He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.

I read the second sentence several times, thinking there had to be a comma missing between the words, “sleep” and “pain,” wondered what “sleep pain” could be, but didn’t google Aeschylus (whom I know practically nothing about) until later, when the quote, punctuated the same way, came up again toward the end of the novel. According to Goodreads, Aeschylus wrote:

Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget
falls drop by drop upon the heart
until, in our own despair, against our will,
comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.**

What I liked about ORDINARY GRACE was the way Frank and his younger brother Jake constantly eavesdropped on the adult conversations in their world—a Minnesota small town in 1961. The summer remembered in the story is one of death and mystery, and the motivation of the boys to find out what is going on is plausibly and cleverly crafted. I also admired Krueger’s capture of the time period. I was twelve in 1961, and the details and settings rang true. (Except on p. 236, when “Jake flopped on the sofa and turned on the TV.” Unless he could reach the TV from the sofa, Jake would have had to turn it on before flopping, as remotes weren’t around until the 1970s.)

Krueger’s prose felt clumsy to me at times, but that may not be fair criticism. The adult Frank Drum telling the story never purports to be a writer. From the Epilogue, we learn he is a high school history teacher, a philosophical one who believes there is no such thing as a true event. “We know dates and times and locations and participants but accounts of what happened depend upon the perspective from which the event is viewed.”

I wish both Krueger and his protagonist (and Aeschylus) had been a little more generous with their commas, and I wish I had liked ORDINARY GRACE better. That said, I couldn’t agree more with Drum’s (presumably Krueger’s) stance on reality versus perception.

I have another Krueger title—THIS TENDER LAND—in my to-read stack, so in the future I’ll have another opportunity to decide what I think about this very popular, much published author.

*The heart has reasons that reason does not understand—Blaise Pascal

**I am still confused by the Aeschylus quote, and don’t understand the one from Pascal, either. If I am ever fortunate enough to have a novel published, the page following the dedication is going to be blank.

 

 

 

 

5 Responses

  1. Barbara
    | Reply

    Funny, I also peruse the same things before I read a book.
    Just finished “The Paris Library” by Janet Skeslien Charles, a novel based on true happenings during WWII.
    I enjoyed reading this one.

    Just started “How Crafting Saved My Life” by Sutton Foster.

  2. Dee Winter
    | Reply

    I enjoy your blog. Some things really resonate with me too. And I am a bookie. But I have to disagree about the remote control. My grandma had a remote control for her tv when I was about 8 or 9, which would be 60 or 61. It was very simple, turn on/off, change channels, push for each move up or down and the same for the volume. It was a marvel. Grandma loved it and so did I. We could sit and embroider and just use the remote to change the channel.

    • Marianne Fons
      | Reply

      Dee, thank you for a great description of an early remote control and embroidering with your grandma. I stand corrected. That said, I’m pretty sure the Drum family in ORDINARY GRACE would not have had one.

  3. elizabeth a hinze
    | Reply

    Loved both books. I listened to both of them. I really enjoy being read to.
    I think of his books as stories, not real life. I like a good story 🙂

  4. Brenda
    | Reply

    I bought this book a couple weeks ago and it’s sitting on top of my desk. Time to start reading. Thank you for sharing.

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