Tag Archives: National book award

Ordinary Grace a mystery with grace and sadness

graceI’ve enjoyed William Kent Krueger‘s Cork O’Connor mystery series, thirteen mysteries featuring a former Chicago cop turned small-town Minnesota sheriff.  The books are well-written, compellingly atmospheric, and feature strong characterization and plotting.  With Ordinary Grace, Krueger has elevated his writing even further.

The book begins in the voice of Frank Drum, recalling the summer of 1961, when he was 13 years old.  Just one page long, this prologue sets the tone for the story that follows, a tragic story and one filled with loss and anguish.

It begins:  All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses, killed on the railroad tracks outside New Bremen, Minnesota, sliced into pieces by a thousand tons of steel speeding across the prairie toward South Dakota.  And ends:  In the end maybe that’s what the summer was about.  I was no older than Bobby and didn’t understand such things hen.  I’ve come four decades since but I’m not sure that even now I fully understand.  I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer.  About the terrible price of wisdom.  The awful grace of God.

And then the story begins, first person, as it happens to 13-year-old Frank Drum.  His father, a Methodist minister, is a rock upon whom many lean.  His mother dreams of a better, more fulfilling life for Frank’s sister Ariel, who is a talented pianist, accepted to Juilliard in the fall.  And his younger brother, Jake, is the tag-along kid with a stutter under pressure.  What unfolds is shocking:  Ariel disappears.  When her body is found in the river, suspicion lights on first one, then another of the town’s inhabitants, and Frank learns that many people are not as they seem, including Ariel herself.  What Frank learns about betrayal, his family and his own capacity for understanding and forgiveness is astonishingly moving.  Read the book for the mystery – it’s a good one.  But you’ll remember it for the  insights it offers and the emotions it evokes.

Ordinary Grace reminds me, in many ways, of The Round House by Louise Erdich (Lunchbox review here).  Both have the framing story of a recollection by a grown man of events that occurred many years in the past.  Both feature a shocking crime and its repercussions.  And both are, at heart, a tragic coming-of-age story.  The Round House won the National Book Award for fiction in 2012.  I can only hope Ordinary Grace receives the accolades it deserves!

A remarkable book: Once Upon a River

Bonnie Jo Campbell photo by Bradley S. Pines

Bonnie Jo Campbell has written a wonderful novel about a remarkable character, with a strong sense of time, place and people.  Margo Crane is the only child of an unhappy couple in a rural Michigan community.  Her mother abandons them, leaving Margo to the loving, but not necessarily skillful, care of her father.  Once Upon a River tells Margo’s story from age 16 to age 19, as she becomes a woman intent, despite much struggle, to live the life she chooses.

A thoughtful girl who’s not much good in school, Margo is at home in the backwoods, a crack shot, good at hunting, fishing and foraging.  Her hero is Annie Oakley. She values relationships and has a strong sense of right and wrong.   Her blooming sexuality is both a blessing and a curse; it leads her into troublesome relationships with flawed men, but she always seems to learn something useful about herself from the experience.

Margo’s adventures on the river begin with her father’s death – a death she caused, in large part, but in a way she could not have foreseen.   She takes a boat and heads out, determined to find her mother.   She pauses along the way, sometimes for weeks or months at a time, as she puts down roots, only to be uprooted and move along again.  By the end of the novel, Margo has a home of her own and is soon to give birth.

I was struck, when reading Once Upon a River, by the strong sense of individualism Margo displays.  She manages on her own, but is not above looking for favors from others.  Three times in the book she chooses to establish a sexual relationship with men for the security of a place to live and food to eat.  And yet, she has genuine fondness and even love for these men, who all ultimately disappoint her.

These experiences echo her mother’s path.  Luanne has exchanged her beauty – which, at age 50, she has to work hard to keep – and her family for the security of her current marriage, with its modern conveniences, lake home, and fluffy towels.  Her husband does not even know she has a child.   The haven Margo seeks won’t be found with Luanne.

Margo’s final relationship with a man has a similar “let’s make a deal” basis.  She needs a place to live, somewhere to take an occasional shower.  Smoke – elderly, wheel-chair bound, with lungs rotting away – needs someone to keep him out of a nursing home.  But there is soon a very real love between these two and Smoke’s death was the single most affecting passage in Once Upon the River.

Once Upon a River was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s Ten Best Novels of 2011, and it is now out in paperback, so get thee to your local independent bookstore for an excellent read.  You’ll be lost in another world.