The Edgar Awards Revisited: Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (Best Novel, 2014)
William Kent Krueger's Ordinary Grace a slice of Americana dipped in murder and wrapped in religion and that strange mix of warmth, resentment, comfort, and fear.
William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace is one of those crime novels in which crime is just one of the elements of the story. While there is murder in its pages, this book is a celebration of language, a brilliant and nostalgic study of life in small-town America in the 1960s, a look at the complex relationships within a family, and a narrative that explores this country using crime, religion, and childhood as lenses.
Frank Drum was just a kid back in 1961. He lived in the small town of New Bremen, Minnesota with his parents and two siblings. His mother sang at church and his father was a Methodist minister. Life was relatively simple. Forty years later, Frank recalls those days with the mind of an adult and that shows him everything he missed at the time as well as the things that shaped him. One of the things Frank remembers is death. A lot of it. It starts with a young boy found dead by the train tracks and continues with the body of a hobo that Frank and his younger brother find. From there, it grows and takes over the summer. Accidents. Natural causes. Suicide. Murder. Death touches Frank’s innocence and rocks New Bremen to the core. Frank’s teenage mind is forced to deal with the normal concerns of boys his age, things like a girl, fireworks, bullies, and comic books, but also to try to process the chaos in his family, his father’s past, his mother’s discontent, and his brother’s judgment and stuttering. Frank is on the brink of becoming a young man, and the summer’s mysteries, drama, violence, and lies are quickly and inexorably pushing him over the edge, hurtling him into the dark world of adulthood.
Ordinary Grace is beautifully written. It’s a slice of Americana dipped in murder and wrapped in religion and that strange mix of warmth, resentment, comfort, and fear that comes being a teenage boy in a home where things aren’t always great and everyone is harboring a few secrets. Krueger’s has a wonderful knack for showing readers the good, the bad, and the ugly of small-town living via vibrant descriptions that never bog down the narrative:
After the fireworks had ended we drifted home, Jake and I. All over New Bremen the celebration continued and the sky was alive with burning blooms of color and from the dark down the cross streets came the rattle of strings of firecrackers. Gus’s motorcycle was gone and I suspected he would finish celebrating Independence Day in a bar. The light in my father’s church was on and his windows were closed and the sound of Tchaikovsky bled through the glass. The Packard was not in the garage and I knew that my mother was at a post-chorale celebration with Ariel and Brandt and the New Bremen Town Singers and would not be home until late.
Krueger gets many elements right in this novel. The main one is the plot itself. The storytelling is straightforward and the plot deceptively simple, but Krueger packs the pages of this novel with small dramas, nightmares, concerns, dangers, and tiny peccadilloes that are magnified by the fact that they take place in a town where everyone knows everyone else.
The second element that Krueger nails is characterization. The number of characters here would be extremely hard to handle by less capable authors. Cops, ministers, wives, musicians, uncles, families from town, and everyone in Frank’s life is shown as a real individual with a past and a personality. Furthermore, the author isn’t afraid to show how each character connects to others even when their connection has nothing to do with the core of the novel.
The last element meriting a mention here is dialogue. There are a plethora of voices at work in this story, and they all get a time in the spotlight. While Frank is the narrator, those around him have unique voices that show their personality. Conversations feel real, arguments ring true, and even overheard conversations add to the story in unexpected ways while feeling true.
Ordinary Grace is one of those crime novels that manage to convey a sense of time and place in a way that’s both entertaining and immersive. New Bremen is small and humid in the middle of summer, a place where America is seen as something created from “the raw dirt of God’s imagination.” Family and church are everything, but things hide right under that. Also, it’s summer and it’s hot, and those elements play a role in the story. Kids want to go swimming. Frank’s sister goes on a boat. The Fourth of July celebration brings the whole town out. Small details like this add not only to the sense of authenticity but also show how Frank processes his memories four decades after the fact.
Lastly, there is a character that makes this a truly special novel: Redstone. He is a strange Sioux man who seems to appear at the right and wrong times and who teaches Frank a few lessons that change the way he sees the world and helps him understand not everything he’s told at school is right. Redstone explains why there was violence between the whites and the Native Americans:
“Our people were starving,” Redstone said. “The whites trespassed on our land, feeding our grass to their animals, cutting our trees for their houses, shooting what little game we still had. Our crops failed and the winter was hard, hard. We asked for the food the whites had promised us in the treaty we’d signed. Know what they said to our starving people? They said ‘Let them eat grass.’ Sure we fought. We fought for food. We fought because promises were broken. We fought because we refused to be crushed under the boots of the whites. The man who told us to eat grass, he was killed, and our warriors stuffed grass into his mouth. It was a hopeless thing we tried to do, because the whites, they had soldiers and guns and money and newspapers that repeated all the lies. In the end, our people lost everything and were sent away from here. Thirty-eight of our warriors were hung in one day, and the whites who watched it cheered.”
Ordinary Grace won the Edgar for Best Novel in 2014 and there are myriad reasons why. The pacing is superb, the writing is outstanding, and the atmosphere and characterization are great. Those who haven’t read this one yet should do so as soon as they can.
Notes from the 2014 Edgar Awards:
- Krueger beat out Louise Penny (How the Light Gets In), Thomas H. Cook (Sandrine’s Case), Ian Rankin (Standing in Another Man’s Grave), Matt Haig (The Humans), and Lori Roy (Until She Comes Home) for the Best Novel Edgar.
- Jason Matthews took home the Best First Novel for his Red Sparrow. He beat out Rober Hobbs’ Ghostman, Becky Masterman’s Rage Against the Dying, Kimberly McCreight’s Reconstructing Amelia, and Matthew Guinn’s The Resurrectionist.
- America is Elsewhere: The Noir Tradition in the Age of Consumer Culture by Erik Dussere won the Best Biography.
- The Hour of Peril The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War by Daniel Stashower won Best Fact Crime.
- Best Short Story went to John Connolly for “The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository,” beating out entries from Max Allan Collins/Mickey Spillane, Reed Farrel Coleman, Trina Corey, and Tim L. Williams.
- Jenny Milchman’s Cover of Snow won the Mary Higgins Clark Award.
- Robert Crais and Carolyn Hart served as co-Grand Masters.
We’ll see everyone back here next week as Allison Brennan revs her engine and returns with a review of Mr. Mercedes by Stephen King, the 2015 Edgar Award winner of Best Novel. See you then!
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.