Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Originally from Southern California, Joe Hong is currently a PhD student in Comparative Literature at Rutgers University. While he has a passion for all literary form, Joe has recently been inspired by the novels and short stories written by contemporary American writers, which has led him to pursue writing this column for Dappered. His other pastimes include watch collecting and craft whiskies.
Ever since I was a kid, I romanticized summer. I’m twenty-four now, and I still get giddy at the prospects of spending warm evenings surrounded by friends whether it be on a beach or on a patio. Ordinary Grace refuses to cater to those sentiments. Rather, it captures the darker spiritual underbelly of the season with a haunting, gritty realism. Good prose is good prose, but when you read a novel at the right time it can become something more. The religious themes of this novel might be rubbing off on me, but I consider it a little miracle that I read this when summer is right around the corner.
Ordinary Grace is narrated by Frank, a middle-aged man who tells the story of one tragic summer. He was thirteen years old at the time, and the traumatic events of that summer resulted in an accelerated coming-of-age that Mr. Krueger’s prose only barely manages to slow down during the most critical moments. Moreover, what parallels and punctuates this expedited maturation is the novel’s deconstruction of notions of masculinity.
This recent winner of the Edgar Award for Best Novel tells a multiplicity of stories that orbit around the steady narrative of the irreparable losses endured by Frank and his family during the summer of ’61. It tells the story of a small town in Minnesota and the various ways by which its close-knit inhabitants foster and hinder a communal recovery following death and scandal. It tells a story of two brothers and best friends, Frank and Jake, as they support each other in both small and miraculous ways in an attempt to survive this summer. It tells the story of their father, a pious and humble Methodist minister, as he attempts to hold his family together as its spiritual and ethical backbone. It tells two stories of communicative disorders through two characters, one who stutters and one who is partially deaf. Finally, the novel narrates a secret history of violence committed against Native Americans.
Mr. Krueger’s literary techniques seemed a bit obnoxious to me at times. In one scene, two characters engage in a chess game glaring with metaphorical value. But in no way does this undermine the novel’s ability to capture the landscape of summer. Several times I found myself pausing and re-reading descriptions of the late afternoon sky or of the stifling sensation of humidity. And although I’ve never personally experienced the tragedies endured by Frank, the descriptions of the season that permeate the entirety of the novel remain uncannily familiar. While it’s advertised as being a mystery novel, Ordinary Grace might disappoint readers who are looking for conventional detective fiction. That being said, I would highly recommend this book for what it is: a novel that is at times able to immerse the reader in a thrilling narrative, while also being able to slow down the pace to allow for a profoundly nostalgic contemplation that weighs heavy like a thick summer humidity.
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