Carter Hedberg, Director of Philanthropy, recommends Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger.
Summers were pretty quiet for me growing up in the village of Waldorf in rural south-central Minnesota, population 283. Every Sunday my family went to church, and a trip to the town’s tiny grocery store meant riding my bike two blocks. I have fond memories of navigating the railroad tracks on the edge of town with my cousin Debbie as we looked for the perfect agate, or going down to Little Cobb Creek where I would collect water bugs and an occasional crayfish. The summer heat was broken by an occasional thunderstorm and the warm evening breezes sometimes brought the sweet scent of freshly cut alfalfa into town from a nearby farm. Life in a small town may sound quaint and idyllic, but of course it was never perfect, and as with all of life, there often can be a dark side to the good.
William Kent Krueger’s gripping book, Ordinary Grace, places on full display the dark side of the fictional town of New Bremen, Minnesota. New Bremen is located in the Minnesota River Valley, not too far from where I grew up. It is the summer of 1961—a time of excitement with a new young president and the Twins baseball franchise making its debut in Minnesota. Thirteen-year-old Frank Drum is expecting to have a fine summer doing the things he loves to do—visiting the soda counter, reading comic books, walking along the river with his little brother, and mowing lawns to earn some extra money. When calamity hits, Frank’s summer turns ugly. Yet he is able to bravely and with budding maturity, confront tragic deaths, scandal, human frailty, and his own limitations.
Frank’s wise father, Nathan, is the town’s Methodist minister who lives with an undisclosed emotional burden from in World War II, and seeks solace in his deep faith, especially as one tragedy after another happens. Ruth, Frank’s mother, does her duty as a pastor’s wife, yet she is restless and dreams about her unmet desire to be a professional performer and often resents Nathan’s devotedness. Frank has two siblings: sister Ariel is a talented vocalist and composer with plans for Juilliard. His little brother Jake, who is his constant companion, is shy with most people because of his stutter, but is intuitively insightful in ways that are far beyond his years.
Early in the novel, all emotional hell breaks loose when a series of deaths transpire and the townsfolk grapple with the horror and confusion of confronting these nightmarish tragedies. The reader follows the narrative as told by Frank and his storytelling is so gripping, so authentic, and written so beautifully it is hard to put the novel down.
Honestly, I do not want to reveal too much of the plot because I want you, the reader, to discover the power of Kreuger’s prose. That said, wisdom, grace, faith, and forgiveness are dominant themes that run throughout the book. Krueger has stated that by setting the book during this era he was able to “explore themes that have been important to me all of my life.” The voices he gave brothers Frank and Jake are transcendent, with the clarity needed to navigate these difficult themes with artistry and aplomb. Krueger said that Ordinary Grace is the “best thing” he has ever written; “everything I know about storytelling” went into this book. You experience the power and grace of exquisite storytelling, and there is nothing ordinary about it.