Ordinary Grace (Krueger)

Ordinary Grace
William Kent Krueger, 2013
Atria Books
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781451645859

That was it. That was all of it. A grace so ordinary there was no reason at all to remember it. Yet I have never across the forty years since it was spoken forgotten a single word.

New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were selling out at the soda counter of Halderson’s Drugstore, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a grim summer in which death visited frequently and assumed many forms. Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder.

Frank begins the season preoccupied with the concerns of any teenage boy, but when tragedy unexpectedly strikes his family—which includes his Methodist minister father; his passionate, artistic mother; Juilliard-bound older sister; and wise-beyond-his-years kid brother—he finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal, suddenly called upon to demonstrate a maturity and gumption beyond his years.

Told from Frank’s perspective forty years after that fateful summer, Ordinary Grace is a brilliantly moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, trying to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. It is an unforgettable novel about discovering the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—November 16, 1950
Where—Torrington, Wyoming, USA
Education—Stanford University (no degree)
Awards—Anthony Award's Best Novel (twice); Anthony
   Award's Best First Novel; Barry Award for Best First
   Novel; Loft-McKnight Award
Currently—lives in St. Paul, Minnesota

William Kent Krueger is an American author and crime writer, best known for the 13 novels of his Cork O'Connor series of books, ending with Tamarack County in 2013. The series is set mainly in Minnesota, USA. In 2005 and 2006, he won back-to-back Anthony Awards for best novel. Only one other author has done this since the award's inception in 1986.

Krueger has said that he wanted to be a writer from the third grade, when his story "The Walking Dictionary" was praised by his teacher and parents.

He attended Stanford University but his academic path was cut short when he came into conflict with the university's administration during student protests of spring 1970. Throughout his early life, he supported himself by logging timber, digging ditches, working in construction, and being published as a freelance journalist. He never stopped writing.

He wrote short stories and sketches for many years, but it was not until the age of 40 that he finished the manuscript of his first novel, Iron Lake. It won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, the Barry Award for Best First Novel, the Minnesota Book Award, and the Loft-McKnight Fiction Award.

In 2013 he published his first stand-alone novel Ordinary Grace, referred to by Publishers Weekly as "elegiac, evocative....a resonant tale of fury, guilt, and redemption."

He lives with family in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Writing influences
Krueger has said his favorite book is To Kill A Mockingbird. He grew up reading Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James T. Farrell. Most influential among these was Hemingway. In an interview for Shots magazine, Krueger described his admiration for Hemingway's prose:

His prose is clean, his word choice perfect, his cadence precise and powerful. He wastes nothing. In Hemingway, what’s not said is often the whole point of a story. I like that idea, leaving the heart off the page so that the words, the prose itself, is the first thing to pierce you. Then the meaning comes.

As a mystery genre writer, Krueger credits Tony Hillerman and James Lee Burke as his strongest influences.

Writing process
Krueger prefers to write early in the morning. Rising at 5.30 am, he goes to the nearby St Clair Broiler, where he drinks coffee and writes long-hand in wirebound notebooks.

He began going to the diner in his 30s when he had to make time for writing early in the morning before going to work at the University of Minnesota. He continues the habit, and today has his "own" booth there. In return for his loyalty, the restaurant has hosted book launches for Krueger. At one, the staff wore T-shirts emblazoned with "A nice place to visit. A great place to die."

Cork O'Connor series
When Krueger decided to set the series in northern Minnesota, he realized that a large percentage of the population was of mixed ancestry. In college, Krueger had wanted to be a cultural anthropologist; he became intrigued by researching the Ojibwe culture and weaving the information into his books. Krueger's books are set in and around Native American reservations. The main character, Cork O'Connor is part Ojibwe, part Irish.

History was a study in futility. Because people never learned. Century after century, they committed the same atrocities against one another or against the earth, and the only thing that changed was the magnitude of the slaughter... Conscience was a devil that plagued the individual. Collectively, a people squashed it as easily as stepping on a daisy.

Krueger has read the first Ojibwe historian, William Whipple Warren, as well as Francis Densmore, Gerald Vizenor and Basil Johnston. He has also read novels by Louise Erdrich and Jim Northrup. Krueger began to meet and get to know the Ojibwe people and remains fascinated by their culture.

His descriptions are meant to express his characters' feelings about the settings. Krueger believes that the sense of place is made resonant by the actions and emotions of the characters within it. He describes it as "a dynamic bond that has the potential to heighten the drama of every scene." (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Once in a blue moon a book drops down on your desk that demands to be read. You pick it up and read the first page, and then the second, and you are hooked. Such a book is Ordinary Grace…This is a book that makes the reader feel better just by having been exposed to the delights of the story. It will stay with you for quite some time and you will always remember it with a smile.
Huffington Post

[E]legiac, evocative.... The summer of 1961 finds thirteen-year-old Frank Drum living in small-town New Bremen, Minn. He and his younger brother, Jake, idolize their older sister, Ariel.... The Drums’ peaceful existence is shattered, however, when Ariel fails to return from a late-night party. In the aftermath of her disappearance...dark secrets about New Bremen come to light....for what becomes a resonant tale of fury, guilt, and redemption.
Publishers Weekly

For fans of Wiley Cash’s A Land More Kind Than Home or Krueger’s other works, this is a touching read, with just enough intrigue to keep the story moving along. —Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Lib., OH
Library Journal

A thoughtful literary mystery that is wholly compelling and will appeal to fans of Dennis Lehane and Tom Franklin.... Don’t take the title too literally, for Krueger has produced something that is anything but ordinary.

One cannot read Ordinary Grace without feeling as if it is destined to be hailed as a classic work of literature. Ordinary Grace is one of those very rare books in which one regrets reaching its end, knowing that the experience of having read it for the first time will never be repeated. Krueger, who is incapable of writing badly, arguably has given us his masterpiece.

(Starred review.) A respected mystery writer turns his attention to the biggest mystery of all: God....  Krueger aims higher and hits harder with a stand-alone novel that shares much with his other work.... [A] series of...deaths shake the world of Frank Drum, the 13-year-old narrator.... One of the novel's pivotal mysteries concerns the gaps among what Frank experiences (as a participant and an eavesdropper), what he knows and what he thinks he knows.... Yet, ultimately, the world of this novel is one of redemptive grace and mercy, as well as unidentified corpses and unexplainable tragedy. A novel that transforms narrator and reader alike.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

1. Talk about the characters, starting with Ruth and Nathan Drum, the narrator's mother and father. How would you describe them and, especially, their marriage?

2. What do you think of Emil Brandt and his sister?

3. How would you describe Gus? What is the bond between Gus and Nathan based on? What do you think was the event during the war that the two refer to obliquely as they sit together in the darkened church.

4. Discuss, in particular, Nathan's sermon after Ariel's death? What are its theological implications? Does Nathan answer the question of theodicy: if God is loving and all powerful, why do bad things to happen to good people?

5. What prompts Frank, after his father's sermon, to go to Jake and tell him, "You're my best friend in the whole world. You always have been and you always will be"?

6. Why is Ruth so angry with Nathan after Ariel disappears? How would you respond to such a horrific loss: would you respond as Ruth does, in anger? Or would you be more like Nathan?

7. How would you define grace? What, specifically, does "ordinary grace" refer to in the story, and what is the larger religious significance of the term "ordinary grace"? Why is the grace spoken by Jake so extraordinary...and how does it affect members of his family?

8. Whom did you first suspect...and when did you begin to suspect the real killer? What "red herrings" (false clues) does the author put in the way to lead readers down the wrong path?

9. Much of the book has to do with young Frank's attempt to separate what he thinks he knows from what might (or might not) be the ultimate truth. Have you even been in a position of "knowing" something with certainty...and then learning that your judgment was wrong? How can we guard ourselves against false accusations?

10. What does Warren Redstone mean when he says to Frank, "You've just killed me, white boy"? Why does Frank let Redstone escape? Even Jake tells us...

How could I possibly explain my silence, my complicity in his escape, things I didn't really understand myself? My heart had simply directed me in a way my  head couldn't wrap its thinking around....

Was Jake wrong to let Redstone get away? Should he have kept silent?

11. Talk about Karl Brandt and how he dies—an accident...or intentional?

12. What do you think happened to Bobby Cole? Why might the author have left that mystery unresolved?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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