Monday, April 22, 2013

Book Review: "Ordinary Grace" by William Kent Krueger

Many novels take place in an earlier time, but not all have the ability to evoke feelings of nostalgia and perfectly capture times gone by. Authors like Larry Watson have done it (with novels like Montana 1948 and American Boy), and with his new novel, Ordinary Grace, mystery writer William Kent Krueger has done so as well.

The book takes place in New Bremen, Minnesota in the summer of 1961. Thirteen-year-old Frank Drum is on the cusp of young adulthood and he occupies himself the way most boys his age do—hanging out with friends, trying to get a glimpse of women whenever he can, wanting to be treated like an adult, and simultaneously protecting and bullying his younger brother, Jake, who has a debilitating stutter. Their father, Nathan, is the town's Methodist minister, who hasn't quite shaken the horrors he experienced in World War II; his mother, Ruth, isn't quite satisfied with life as the wife of a minister, and pins all of her hopes and dreams on her daughter, Ariel, the boys' older sister, who is a gifted pianist and musician about to attend Juilliard on scholarship.

When a young boy is killed by a train, the idyllic nature of New Bremen begins to shatter. And when questions about whether the boy's death was an accident begin to arise, they set into motion a number of discoveries and serve as a catalyst to several other tragic events that summer which rock Frank and Jake to their core, making them question their parents, their faith, and those in authority, and cause them to deal with feelings of guilt, anger, sadness, and betrayal.

This is a well-written, slow-moving book which doesn't surprise, but it does pull you in. The characters are complex and well drawn, and not entirely sympathetic, but you are still interested in finding out what happens to them. I found the resolution of the major crime in the book a little too predictable, but liked the way the book wrapped up. My greatest frustration, however, was how so many of the events were set into motion simply because Frank or Jake were either bullied into divulging secrets or felt bullied into keeping secrets they shouldn't have. It reminded me a little of Atonement in that way. I know that younger children do blurt things out but the fact that it happened more than once—and that those in authority manipulated this information—weakened my fondness for the book a bit.

Ordinary Grace perfectly captures a time and a place that no longer exists. William Kent Krueger is an excellent storyteller, and although I found the book frustrating in places, it is still tremendously readable and well-written. But if you're a fan of Krueger's mysteries, be warned—this is fiction with a touch of mystery, not a thriller.

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