Ordinary Grace

9781451645859_p0_v4_s192x300    A coming of age story with power and sentiment, William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace follows the summer of a thirteen year old boy as he reflects on the circumstances that formed his character as an adult.

Frank Drum, and his brother, Jake, romp through the summer days in the Minnesota countryside, jumping into the cool quarry waters, playing ball with their friends, dangling their feet over the railroad trestle, and surreptitiously listening in on adult conversations.  Their carefree summer suddenly turns into drama, when they find a an old Sioux leaning over a dead body below the railroad tracks.  As Frank tells the story, he warns of more deaths to come that summer in the early 1960’s, yet the flavor of the plot and dialogue remains unexpectedly normal as everyone continues with their uneventful lives.

Krueger, the author of the Cork O’Conner series about a former Chicago cop living in the Minnesota woods, is a master of mystery, and he does include three deaths and a murder with red herrings to distract from the real killer, who is eventually revealed.  With a mix of anticipation and tension, Krueger paces the story with the evenness of the boys’ lives as they live through the idyllic summer that forces them to grow up.

Krueger has created a cast of compelling characters (young and old), each in his or her own way searching for something, including the narrator’s father, the town’s Methodist pastor.  Frank’s father,  having changed careers from being a promising trial attorney after he survived the horrors of war, carries the novel’s theme of basic goodness despite the world’s misery and genuinely bad things happening to good people.  But Krueger is never preachy, and his minister’s thoughtful comments seem more philosophical than religious.  Frank and his brother grow up with him as their model, facing life and death with his perspective:

“Loss,” says Frank toward the novel’s end, “once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand … you can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away.”

Despite its moral compass constantly pointing North and its tangential bucolic descriptions of the Minnesota woods in summer, Ordinary Grace is a compelling coming-of-age novel, exploring events propelling its characters from childhood to adulthood.  Although the ending is somewhat predictable, some of the characters’ words will stay with you:

“My heart had simply directed me in a way that my head couldn’t wrap its thinking around…”

“It’s hard to say goodbye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps up upright and connected until the worst is past.”

I found this book on a friend’s book club list for next year.  The author of Ordinary Grace includes a a few topics for book club discussion at the back of the book, but one seems to summarize the book’s intent:

How do small moments help deal with larger-than-life trouble?

 

Minnesota Roots and A List of Books

images  Before Prince created the Minnesota Sound, Jason Diamond reminds us that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a native Minnesotan.  In his article for the travel section of the New York Times – Tracing F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Minnesota Roots – Diamond reviews the Minnesota places haunting many of Fitzgerald’s work.

“He wrote The Beautiful and the Damned in the yellow Victorian home with the wide porch on Goodrich Avenue and took strolls along White Bear Lake, about 10 miles to the north, in his mid-20s, newly married and having just published his first book – it was the place where he was inspired to set and write Winter Dreams.  Minnesota, it seemed, was good to him.”

I had never read “Winter Dreams,” and found the short story free online -you can read it here –  Winter Dreams  full of Minnesota references.

Fitzgerald was a prolific writer but in 1936, as he was  convalescing in a hotel in Asheville, North Carolina,  he offered his nurse a list of 22 books he thought were essential reading – none of his were on the list. 

These are books that F. Scott Fitzgerald thought should be required reading. Have you read any of them?

  1. Sister Carrie, by Theodore Dreiser
  2. The Life of Jesus, by Ernest Renan
  3. A Doll’s House, by Henrik Ibsen
  4. Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson
  5. The Old Wives’ Tale, by Arnold Bennett
  6. The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiel Hammett
  7. The Red and the Black, by Stendahl
  8. The Short Stories of Guy De Maupassant, translated by Michael Monahan
  9. An Outline of Abnormal Psychology, edited by Gardner Murphy
  10. The Stories of Anton Chekhov, edited by Robert N. Linscott
  11. The Best American Humorous Short Stories, edited by Alexander Jessup
  12. Victory, by Joseph Conrad
  13. The Revolt of the Angels, by Anatole France
  14. The Plays of Oscar Wilde
  15. Sanctuary, by William Faulkner
  16. Within a Budding Grove, by Marcel Proust
  17. The Guermantes Way, by Marcel Proust
  18. Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust
  19. South Wind, by Norman Douglas
  20. The Garden Party, by Katherine Mansfield
  21. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
  22. John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley: Complete Poetical Works

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

I once knew a botanist whose idea of heaven was to find secluded areas full of new vegetation – plants undiscovered, unknown – a paradise of discovery.  Of course, if this place had 27 different kinds of mosquitos, snakes, and no running water – all the better.   Not my idea of fun.  But, thankfully, explorers are still willing to go into the obscure sites, and in Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, they are subsidized by the pharmaceutical companies.

Patchett stirs the action immediately with news that a researcher recently sent into the Amazon jungle to check on promising research on a new fertility drug has mysteriously died.  With little information forthcoming from the feisty seventy-year-old in charge of the project, Dr. Swenson, who continues to run up bills without sending back samples, the phramaceutical company’s VP decides to send Dr. Marina Singh to the jungle to investigate exactly what is going on.  So starts a saga of jungle lore – complete with cannibals, torch-bearing natives, rivers full of anacandas, malaria-breeding mosquitos, and mysterious trees with the promise of a cure.

Patchett knows how to tell a story.  If you’ve read Bel Canto or Run, you know how she can weave unlikely characters and possibilities together, and even give you a surprise now and then, as she holds you a captive reader.  State of Wonder, although a little hokey and conveniently melodramatic at times, is no exception; I couldn’t put it down and read it in a day – nonstop.

Whether or not Patchett did her research, her descriptions of the jungle are not only plausible but downright convincing.  With all the harrowing close-calls poor Marina Singh had to endure, it’s unlikely any reader would want to consider it as a travel destination.  And the characters, as dysfunctional as they may be personally, all work together: the Bovenders, Australian surfers looking for an “easy gig” while waiting for the waves in Peru; Mr. Fox, the uptight administrator hoping no one will notice his feelings for his subordinate, Marina; Dr. Swenson, the tough old broad who takes no prisoners but has a heart after all; Easter, the native deaf boy with more sense than most of the medical doctors – in the jungle anyway; and, of course, Marina, the star character, who struggles with her own demons that led her away from obstetrics to a career as a researcher in cholesterol.

The crux of the story has Marina going to the Amazon to find Anders, her colleague and father of three boys, who has mysteriously died in the jungle.  After a series of setbacks, she finally makes it to Dr. Swenson’s secret camp, and discovers the magical bark that makes the seventy year old women fertile, along with a few other surprises.

The ending is far-fetched, but you will be thankful for it.  And, as always, Patchett offers a wild ride with a good story.