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22 May 2014

William Kent Krueger: Ordinary Grace

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Ordinary or Extraordinary?
William Kent Krueger's prize winning novel is about a young teenager living in small town Minnesota in 1961 where his father is the Methodist preacher, and his reactions to what happened that summer when death intruded on his life. It is a story about the effect on Frank Drum and his family when they are visited by several deaths by accident, nature, suicide and murder, which challenges their beliefs and is what Frank later calls "The awful grace of God".

Frank is 13 years old and lives in a loving and caring family. He supports his shy and stuttering his younger brother Jake, his constant companion, who is "two years and two heads shorter". His sister Ariel is eighteen, about to go to College and already a talented pianist and composer. His mother, Ruth, runs the church choir and every Sunday Frank and Jake (mostly reluctantly) have to attend services at the three churches in the district where his father is pastor.

Many adult males in the town still have their own devils from the War, especially Frank's father Nathan who gave up plans to become a lawyer and became a preacher to become closer to God. His wartime buddy, Gus, lives under the Church in the caretaker's quarters and has his own devils which he regularly attacks with alcohol and bar room fights. The person most affected is Emil Brandt, Ruth's former boyfriend, who returns from the war scarred and blind. He is still a brilliant pianist and takes solace in his music. His only companion is his deaf and angry sister, Lise, who shuns most company, but is surprisingly sympathetic with Jake.

Whenever the boys are allowed they roam the town, the railroad track and the surrounding countryside doing things that young boys will do. One day they come across a dead body under a trestle railroad bridge and come face to face with death directly. Later more deaths visit them which will have a lifetime effect on their family and friends.

Was the book ordinary or extraordinary and deserve its prize winning status? It was certainly very well written and evocative of the time and place but was not a page-turner for me. There were certainly a few extraordinary emotional impacts but they they were only a minor part of the book. I found it difficult to empathise with the religious issues that seemed to me to be thinly veiled Christian fiction which I normally avoid. Others who don't have those feelings will probably rate it as extraordinary.

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