Book Club Review: Ordinary Grace

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger

blog by Cindy Bushey, December 2015

As Advent and Christmas enveloped us in the never-ending and always new story of extraordinary grace, Zion’s readers explored December’s reading selection, William Kent Krueger’s novel titled Ordinary Grace. Billed as a coming-of-age story, the book was a fictional memoir recounting a summer’s events in 1961 in rural Minnesota through the eyes of young Frank. Frank is now in middle age but revisits the summer that ravaged his family, changed his life, taught him about wisdom, and gave him understanding and appreciation of, as the author phrased it, the awful grace of God.

The fact that the book opens with a death pleased some of our readers who enjoy the mystery genre. That more deaths followed just further recommended it. However, Ordinary Grace is no run-of-the-mill who done it. Instead, it is an intimate look inside an ordinary family from the viewpoint of the middle son. The author strikes just the right tone so that readers are transported to days when boys roamed far and free, got into all sorts of mischief, and discovered things they would rather not have known. A minister father who never set out for religious life but detoured there after war experiences changed him, a mother who thought she would be an attorney’s wife and never was able to fulfill her potential, an older sister on the cusp of college who is now sneaking out at night, and a younger brother who stutters and must be protected from bullies. An ordinary family that will be stretched to breaking points from a series of events that seem to be jump started by that first death.

Mr. Krueger weaves all sorts of moral quandaries into his story in such a fashion that one reader referred to it as a To Kill A Mockingbird wanna-be but set in the 60’s. His character development is creative and deep for some of the characters but not all, and he often has dead ends in various branches of the plot. Is this a flaw in his story-telling or just that a thirteen year old boy would have lost interest in certain people after a while and no longer considered them important? From today’s perspective, it seemed that the boys were constantly traveling about without supervision, so much so that a map would have been helpful just so readers could pinpoint where they were going! As the book progressed, the discussion of the concepts of forgiveness, revenge, grief, punishment, and grace found their personification in various characters. Our readers were bemused to see the father allowing the boys to come along while he brought a drunken war buddy home and cleaned him up as well as accompanying him on serious pastoral care visits. We felt the mother, a pastor’s wife who smoked in public, may have been the most interesting character as she struggled with loss – loss of her chance to shine, loss of her position in society, loss of her daughter – and the very human explosion of anger focused on her husband as he relies on his profound faith in God to carry him through his losses. However, the younger brother may have been the most complex character, inhibited in his communication by his disability but able to see deeper into people and understand motives and make allowances for behavior.

At times, it seemed almost embarrassing to see so deeply into the souls of this family, but the author unrelentingly led us through the series of emotional and physical assaults that caused one reader to compare the father to Job. And we watched as the boys had to abruptly leave childhood behind and shoulder adult burdens. In different ways they came to understand the cost of achieving wisdom through grace as they watched their father’s trust and faith emerge bruised but unbeaten. Although some of our readers felt the novel was too wordy, there were pivotal moments described throughout the book and turns of phrase that touched us. At one point, the author says that we are “only a last breath away from seeing our departed ones”; this can be comforting or discomfiting depending on your point of view but always a beautiful turn of phrase. The author was not above using an overly dramatic hand on occasion. We questioned whether someone who stutters can be shocked out of it or stop cold turkey, but who are we to deny it could happen?

All in all, the book was engaging on various levels – a coming-of-age book but also a murder mystery and a book about family, community, death, forgiveness, grief and the grace of God (or lack thereof). After voting, there were two people who were neutral about the book and eleven who gave it one thumb up. Certainly a book we could recommend, and an author we could read again.