Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is a literary mystery and coming of age story set in 1961 (available March 26, 2013).
It’s 1961 in New Bremen, Minnesota, and a mentally handicapped boy has been inexplicably hit by a train. It wasn’t unusual for little Bobby Cole to play on the tracks, but from what the police can tell, it looks like he just lay there and waited for the train to claim him. There should have been plenty of time for him to get out of the way from the oncoming train, but the police have no evidence to suggest that foul play was involved. The town is devastated by this news, and it’s cast a pall over the citizens of New Bremen. It’s also the event in which thirteen-year-old Frank Drum begins his story.
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.
At the funeral for Bobby Cole, Frank listens as Gus, a family friend and war comrade of his father’s, says a few words about the boy:
Bobby had a secret. You know what it was? It took nothing to make him happy. That was it. He held happiness in his hand easy as if he’d just, I don’t know, plucked a blade of grass from the ground. And all he did his whole short life was offer that happiness to anybody who’d smile at him. That’s all he wanted from me. From you. From anybody. A smile.
However, Bobby Cole’s death isn’t the only death that touches Frank Drum’s life that summer. When he and his brother discover the body of an itinerant under an overpass, it’s the first time that Frank has seen a dead body, and it leaves an indelible impression. Frank’s father is a pastor, his mother a singer and pianist (as is his older sister Ariel) who lends her talent to each of his father’s services, and of course, his father has attended his fair share of funerals, so while death is nothing new to Frank, the death of a child is particularly hard to bear, and the summer of 1961 will prove to be particularly tragic and revelatory for Frank and his family. As the days press on, more things are revealed that will serve to begin to change Frank’s outlook on life, death, and his family.
When Gus shares details about his father’s WWII tour, of which his father rarely speaks, Frank is rapt.
Frank, it’s not my place to talk to you about what your father experienced in the war. But I’ll tell you about the war in general. You talk to a man like Doyle and he’ll tell you a lot of bullshit. You watch John Wayne and Audie Murphy in the movie house and it probably seems easy killing men. The truth is that when you kill a man it doesn’t matter if he’s your enemy and if he’s trying to kill you. That moment of his death will eat at you for the rest of your life. It’ll dig into bone so deep inside you that not even the hand of God is going to be able to pull it out, I don’t care how much you pray. And you multiply that feeling by several years and too many doomed engagements and more horror, Frankie, than you can possibly imagine.
Frank’s life is intimately intertwined with faith, yet the summer of ‘61 will shake not only his faith, but his family’s faith, to the core. When his older sister, Ariel, fails to return home from a late night post-chorale celebration, the whole family is thrown into a tailspin. Frank can’t conceive of the possibility of his beloved sister not returning home, and at first, sees the search for Ariel as an adventure, with her discovery, alive and well, being the ultimate conclusion. But of course that isn’t the case, and in waiting for word about his sister, Frank begins to question his father’s God.
In his sermons, my father often talked about trusting God and trusting that no matter how alone we might feel, God was always with us. In all that terrible waiting I didn’t feel the presence of God, not one bit. I prayed but unlike my father who seemed to believe he was being heard, I felt as if I was talking to the air. Nothing came to me in return. Not Ariel or any relief from worry about her.
As the investigation into his sister’s death continues, secrets that have long been held in the small town of New Bremen begin to come to light, and even in the midst of terrible tragedy, Frank discovers that beauty and grace can be found in the smallest of things, and most importantly, the love of his family and friends. Ordinary Grace is a beautifully written novel that, while also a compelling mystery, is, at its heart, a coming of age story of a boy caught in the middle of events that are beyond his control, his loss of innocence, and ultimately, how the summer of 1961 shaped his life forever.
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