William Kent Krueger’s masterful 2013 novel, Ordinary Grace, transported me to the summer of 1961 in a small town on the Minnesota River. I was 12 years old that year, one year younger than the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Frank Drum.
The reading experience was deeply affecting. I’d read two of Krueger’s spellbinding Cork O’Connor mysteries, and his 2017 masterpiece, This Tender Land. I thoroughly enjoyed all three, but Ordinary Grace had the deepest emotional impact.
Krueger is a first-rate storyteller. He develops complex plots with a wide range of characters. His well-honed skill as a mystery writer is clearly evident in Ordinary Grace, yet this book transcends the sometimes-formulaic structure of that genre. Like This Tender Land, the narrative lens is that of a youngster but as told by his much older self. This allows for a churning immediacy in the depiction of a young, troubled teenager, but with the perspective of someone of considerable experience and wisdom.
My favorite character in the novel is Frank’s father, Nathan Drum. Nathan is a devoted Methodist minister who came by his spiritual beliefs honestly. He came from a hard-scrabble, working-class family with a hard-drinking father. He was smart and had a strong ambition to become a lawyer. In college he met and wooed a pretty music major who was taken with Nathan’s worldly drive. Ruth and Nathan married and had a daughter just before he entered the U.S. Army as a combat officer who served on the front lines of World War II from North Africa, to Sicily, Italy, and the final bloody year in Germany.
Something happened to Nathan during that time that set his post-war life on a completely different track. Overwhelmed with the cruelty and carnage of war, Nathan found refuge in his latent Christian faith. Returning home to Ruth and young Ariel, he promptly entered divinity school and became an ordained Methodist minister.
Ruth was taken aback by Nathan’s newly found religious commitment, but her love was such that she went along, reluctantly at times, to become a minister’s wife. The saving grace was that she found a rich avenue to manifest her musical talents and leadership. Their daughter Ariel proved to be a musical prodigy and the family found a sustainable mission in leading small Protestant churches, Methodist and otherwise, in rural Minnesota. Ruth became a first-rate choral director and Ariel composed and performed hymns and other spiritual music that gave the whole family a favorable reputation. Two boys were born in the 1950’s, Frank, and his younger brother, Jake – a boy afflicted with a chronic stutter. Ruth was completely devoted to Ariel, seeing in her the hope for a musical career that she herself had missed. She delegated most of the parenting of the boys to their father.
As the novel begins, the Drum family has been happily ensconced for five years at a small church in New Bremen, the town that Ruth hailed from. School has just let out for the summer, and Frank and Jake enjoy their free time with frequent jaunts along the Minnesota River, which runs near their home. Ariel has just graduated high school with a scholarship to Julliard Music School in New York awaiting her in the fall.
The bucolic atmosphere is soon interrupted by two strange deaths. First, a young boy’s body is found badly mutilated from having been run over by a freight train at a trestle over the river. The young boy is around Jake’s age (10-11) and like Jake, had been regarded as “different” – an only child to aging parents, spacey and unsociable. Nathan is charged with organizing and leading the funeral and he’s deeply chagrined at the violent death of this gentle boy. He counsels the parents, as well as his own two boys who are deeply disturbed by the death.
The second death is even more disturbing for the two boys, who discover a dead man’s body one afternoon under the same trestle where the young boy was found. The “Itinerant” is never identified, yet Nathan handles the funeral with the same respect and care as he would for a parishioner. He has memories of the first time he witnessed a dead soldier, and the profound effect it has upon him.
Events in New Bremen heat up as July 4 approaches. Both boys are drawn to illicit fireworks, but both are shocked when they witness a psychopathic police officer blow up a bullfrog with a firecracker.
Ariel and her mother lead the main event of the town’s July 4 celebration, a choral concert featuring one of Ariel’s compositions, and with the town’s celebrity pianist-composer, Emil Brandt, featured on piano. The concert is a resounding success, followed by a fabulous fireworks display. But later that night, Ariel fails to return from a drunken bonfire-party that her classmates have on a sandy beach along the riverfront. Her steady boyfriend, Karl Brandt, says he got drunk and lost track of her. The whole Drum family is distraught as days go by with no news about Ariel. Ruth becomes completely despondent, and then violently angry at Nathan when he tries to soothe her. The atmosphere at the Drum home becomes toxic, despite the sympathy and food donations coming their way. Frank and Jake are deeply bereft at the loss of their generous and big-hearted sister. Even Nathan is shaken to the core.
After four days, Ariel’s dead body is finally discovered in the river below the train trestle by Frank. Discovering their beloved sister’s corpse is deeply traumatic for both boys. After the body is firmly identified, Ruth’s anger at Nathan’s religiosity boils over and she leaves the family home, completely broken in spirit.
An autopsy reveals that Ariel was pregnant. The boyfriend Karl is immediately suspected but he desperately pleads his innocence. Not only has he not killed her, he has never slept with her. The tragedy is compounded when Karl’s dead body is found on a country road after having been thrown from his sports car.
At this moment of utter bleakness, Nathan is faced with leading a Sunday service at his church. All his friends and church members rally to his side and the church is packed. His spirit is deeply wounded, not only at the death of his daughter, but by the desertion of his wife and life partner. Nathan emerges from his bleak despair as he preaches. He reaches into the deepest recesses of his soul to find and affirm the faith, hope and love that got him through the horrors of war.
At the funeral meal for Ariel, Nathan rises to offer grace but is cut short by a hostile Ruth, who curtly tells him to keep it short with an “ordinary grace.” Her coldness leaves Nathan unhinged, and he asks if someone else can lead grace. In the most moving moment of the book for me, Jake rises to say he will lead grace. Frank and everyone else freeze in horror, knowing the severity of Jake’s speech defect. After a stuttering start, Jake finds his own inner spirit and delivers a simple, heartfelt prayer of gratitude and appreciation.
This moment of “ordinary grace” is a reminder of all the moments of beauty and love that had permeated the life of the Drum family before tragedy hit. Later that evening, Nathan and Frank are alone in the car. Frank wishes aloud that he could have been oblivious to all the tragedy that has transpired. His father turns to him and shares the essence of his own hard-won acceptance:
“There was a playwright, Son, a Greek by the name of Aeschylus. He wrote that he who lives and 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.”
John Bayerl, 1/4/2022