Every once in a while a book comes along that speaks to a reader as if it were written just for her. This doesn't mean it's not appealing to many other readers - and in the case of William Kent Krueger's Ordinary Grace I expect that so many readers will find the book appealing it might make it to the best seller lists.** But for me its message of mercy and forgiveness, its offer of ordinary miracles, ordinary grace, is so vivid, so riveting, that it has gone immediately to my personal "best" list.
Here's how it begins:
All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota. His name was Bobby Cole. He was a sweet-looking kid and by that I mean he had eyes that seemed full of dreaming and he wore a half smile as if he was just about to understand something you'd spent an hour trying to explain. . . . He was a small kid, a simple child, no match at all for the diesel-fed drive of a Union Pacific locomotive.
It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder. You might think I remember that summer as tragic and I do but not completely so. My father used to quote 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."
In the end maybe that's what the summer was about. I was no older than Bobby and didn't understand such things then. I've come four decades since but I'm not sure that even now I fully understand. I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer. About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful grace of God.
It's 1961 and the narrator, a thirteen year old boy, Frank Drum, is living in the fictional small town of New Bremen, on the Minnesota River. (The book's cover photo is of the Mendota Bridge over that river.) His father's experience in World War II so changed him that he gave up studying law and was ordained a Methodist minister. Frank's mother is a frustrated housewife who longs for the city but instead is leading a rural church choir. Frank has a younger brother, Jake, who stutters, and an older sister, Ariel, who is musically talented.
Everyone in the family loves and admires Ariel, who is planning to attend the Julliard in the fall. But one night Ariel doesn't come home and the repercussions on the family and the community are enormous. His family appears to be disintegrating and his mother in particular is unable to cope with the grief. As Frank and Jake learn more about her disappearance and discover the secrets of some of their neighbors, they begin to understand the pain and despair of the grown-up world, but also its grace and redemption.
**As this book is being released in the spring of 2013, the publisher, Simon & Schuster, is feuding with the big-box book chain, Barnes & Noble. Until the issue is resolved Barnes & Noble is not stocking new Simon & Schuster books. Unavailable in this second-largest bookseller in the US, Ordinary Grace will sell fewer copies than might normally be expected.