Review of Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
A huge best seller, with a first person child as the narrator, about a summer of sex, murder and coming of age. The parallels to ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ are hard to miss.
Why do so many writers avoid first person? It becomes obvious too soon in this book. The main character, Frankie, cannot possibly know, be present or be privy to all of the events and conversations that happen. So a method of eavesdropping is conjured up. Frankie can listen to his parents talk through the vent from the kitchen to his bedroom, or he can listen to conversations in his fathers church office from the basement furnace vents that are disconnected.
When the next door neighbors, the Sweeny’s, talk to Frank’s father Nathan about sexual problems in their marriage, I wondered what was the point of this to the story? But it only set the stage for another eavesdropping that had tragic consequences.
Now, spoiler alert. I am going to give away the plot here.
I have two problems with this book. It is incredibly well written and the hooks to the story pulled me along as the author intended. Right from the start when there is some question as to how Bobby Cole died, we learn there are things beneath the surface here.
But my first issue is there were too many things I didn’t believe. When men try to commit suicide, they are almost always successful. Women, not so much. But Emil Brandt tried to commit suicide twice and failed. The police knew that Ariel Drum disappeared near the river but didn’t look for her body. Only Frankie happened to find it. Hard to believe. Emil had sex with Ariel, but only once? Lise was happy in the Mental Hospital? Karl confessed to Nathan he was gay? Doyle blew up a frog with a firecracker? That is something a mean kid would do. Morris happened to die. And Frankie’s infatuation with Edna Sweeney’s underwear or seeing Lise naked. I am not sure what they had to do with the story. I think every writer can assume that readers will suspend disbelief as they read a good book. And it is a good book. But I was jarred out of the story too often by things that didn’t quite ring true.
My second problem with the book is more thematic. I read this book as a book club selection expecting it was more mainstream fiction than the Crime / Who dunnit it is. I had no experience reading Krueger before but the book doesn’t start as I thought a crime book would. I was mistaken. So I had higher expectations. I expected characters I could feel for and that the main character or characters would grow and learn through the novel. There is not much of that. It is a fatalistic book. Nobody really acts, they are mostly acted upon. I want lead characters to engage, drive the action, and learn & grow through the novel. I didn’t get that.
Now there are lots of good things in the book. The look at a less than perfect marriage; Ruth is disappointed to be sure. The damage done to men in war; Most of the male characters had been in WWI, WWII or Korea and had all come out changed in some way. I wondered why there was no mention of the Vietnam war, which was just ramping up at that time. The concern that Frank or Jake might be drafted into that conflict as they come of age is not raised. Early understanding of Autistic people and our horrible treatment of Gay people in the early 60’s is noteworthy.
All in all , a good read, by an author who is trying to make the jump from Crime fiction to mainstream.
July 8, 2015