Small town in Minnesota, summer of 1961. What could possibly happen? Plenty, in this rich novel by William Kent Krueger. The prologue gives the tip-off, with the Aeschylus quote, “And even in our sleep pain… falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”
It’s narrated by 13-year old Frank Drum, whose experiences that summer teach him “the terrible price of wisdom.” Deaths come by accident, suicide and murder, in unpredictable ways with unforeseen consequences. Forty years later, the narrator looks back and reflects, but still doesn’t fully understand. Reconstructing the past, he sees a path weaving into and out of deep shadow.
As the son of the town’s Methodist minister Nathan, Frank has a front row seat on small town events. His father is called when a child is killed by a train or an old war buddy becomes drunk and violent. But when his talented, kind, attractive older sister Ariel dies mysteriously, the family feels directly the jagged edge of tragedy. She is young and has a promising future as a musician ahead; their mother, in deep depression briefly abandons her husband and two young sons.
Through a furnace duct in the church basement across from their home in the rectory, the two boys eavesdrop, a clever device to reveal more of the plot than they would’ve known naturally. What they overhear and see consistently is their father’s steady compassion, even when he is broken-hearted himself.
When their dad must pray at the reception after his daughter’s burial, he pauses for a long silence. His blessings tended to be long and comprehensive. But this time, his wife’s grief, turned terribly onto him, twists into the public outburst, ”For God’s sake, Nathan … just once, offer an ordinary grace?”
That phrase becomes crucial, indeed the book’s title, as the younger son Jake, who stutters steps into the breach. “Oh God,” prays Frank, “just kill me now.” Instead, his little brother prays without a hitch “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.” Surely it can get us thinking about our own ordinary graces: the dance of laundry on the line in a warm breeze, an unexpected message of thanks or kindness, dew shining like jewels in long grass.
Another service Frank remembers is Nathan’s sermon right after Ariel’s death. His colleagues have offered to cover for him, and he has been wracked with sobbing the night before, but he speaks without platitudes and with searing directness. He guarantees miracles, but not the ones we pray for. “God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see the startling beauty of the day.” Without churchy language, he evokes Jesus’ resurrection after his dark night.
After that turning point, Frank is able to tell Jake he’s his best friend, their grandfather for the first time voices his appreciation for the boys’ work on his lawn, and their mother after a time of mourning, returns to her family. The mystery of who killed Ariel is finally resolved. Nathan is a memorable figure—a clergy person who sometimes fails as husband and father but steps out of his own grief to reach others who suffer too. The only badge of his sanctity is a “clean white ball cap” worn in the final scene.
In this epilogue, Nathan, over 80, visits graves on Memorial Day with his two grown sons, all bound by the “awful grace of God.” The word “awful” is used not in God being dreaded, but that God’s grace is far beyond human understanding, logic or sense of fairness. The evocative prose carries the rich scent of Minnesota soil, and the novel is permeated by the profound sense that “the dead are never far from us.” Fine reading for Memorial Day weekend—or any time.