My rating: 5 of 5 stars
New Bremen, Minnesota, 1961. The Twins were playing their debut season, ice-cold root beers were at the ready at Halderson’s Drug Store soda counter, and Hot Stuff comic books were a mainstay on every barbershop magazine rack. It was a time of innocence and hope for a country with a new, young president. But for thirteen-year-old Frank Drum it was a summer in which death assumed many forms.
When tragedy unexpectedly comes to call on his family, which includes his Methodist minister father, his passionate, artistic mother, Juilliard-bound older sister, and wise-beyond-his years kid brother, Frank finds himself thrust into an adult world full of secrets, lies, adultery, and betrayal.
On the surface, Ordinary Grace is the story of the murder of a beautiful young woman, a beloved daughter and sister. At heart, it’s the story of what that tragedy does to a boy, his family, and ultimately the fabric of the small town in which he lives. Told from Frank’s perspective forty years after that fateful summer, it is a moving account of a boy standing at the door of his young manhood, trying to understand a world that seems to be falling apart around him. It is an unforgettable novel about discovering the terrible price of wisdom and the enduring grace of God.
My thoughts: I was almost finished with this book when I tried to explain it to my husband. I ranted and raved about it so he asked what it was about. I tried to explain it for ten minutes before he pointed out that he still didn't know what it was about. "If I could neatly summarize it, it would be a two or three star book, wouldn't it."
Because, on the surface, the book is about a summer that was pivotal to Frank, the son of a Methodist minister. Why was it pivotal? That's where it gets complicated. It starts with Bobby Cole, an innocent, simple minded kid died on the railroad tracks that ran by the river. This event is not greatly significant to Frank but it marks the beginning of his defining summer. The story, in many ways, is not compelling nor is it particularly memorable except that one death that summer is very important to Frankie. What is so striking is the way the story is told. Spare prose with subtle imagery and symbolism.
There is a trestle down by the river and tracks that provides a different perspective whenever Frankie finds himself on it. It is on the trestle that he first lays eyes on Warren Redgrave, a name that is symbolic in itself, and the dead itinerant. It is on the trestle that Frankie finally, after a happy day among sad ones, finds what was lost. On the trestle, Frankie's mother reaches out to him and needs him. On the trestle where he last sees the Indian which causes him great guilt.
Another scene takes us outside where Frankie and his brother, Jake are having conversation near a game of impromptu baseball. Jake looks at the sun and comments, with great clarity as if revelation, that you can't run away from yourself. You are who you are. Jake seemed to grow up right there and then. In the sun. Meanwhile, the game on the sidelines had gotten heated. Two of the boys were ready to come to blows. This was peripheral to the fact that Frankie was wrestling with himself and his conscience. He wondered if he should reveal to Jake a secret he carried. He decides to continue carrying the secret at about the same time the altercation subsides.
What is this book really about? Death, dying, faith, hope, charity, forgiveness, anger, doubt, fear, wisdom, God, atheism, finding the light in a dark time. Nathan preaches from the pulpit about how there are three gifts that nobody can take; faith, hope and love. "
These gifts, which are the foundation of eternity, God has given to us and he's given us complete control over them. Even in the darkest night, it's still within our power to hold to faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may ourselves feel unloved, we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control. God gave us these gifts and he does not take them back. It is we who choose to discard them."He continues,
"The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and see again the startling beauty of the day. Jesus suffered the dark night and death on the third day he rose again through the grac eof his loving father. For each of us, the sun sets and the sun also rises and through the grace of our Lord we can endure our own dark night and rise to the dawning of a new day and rejoice." This given at the pulpit during the horrific tragedy that began to unravel his family.
Frankie later muses, "Something had happened to my father in the war [WWII], something terrible, but he'd found the strength to continue on."
Since I've written much yet can't articulate what the book is really about, I reiterate that it is beautifully written, highly suggested for a book club, and hinges on the following philosophy:
There was a playwright, Son, a Greek by the name of Aeschylus. He wrote that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God. ["Awful?" I ask. "It means beyond our understanding."]