I don’t remember when I first read William Kent Krueger‘s debut mystery, Iron Lake, (published in 1999 and followed by an Edgar award for Best First Novel), but I do remember being captivated from the first page. The language is beautiful, even poetic, but it never pulls the reader out of the story. The descriptions of the Minnesota winter are so vivid, you can feel the chill even in the heart of a simmering Tennessee summer.
The first of Krueger’s Corcoran (Cork) O’Connor series, it’s also one of the first books I recommend to friends. The rest of the series holds up well, following Cork through personal growth and family crises. While each book in the series stands alone, Iron Lake sets the tone and lays the foundation for the others. You can pick up the series anywhere, but I recommend starting at the beginning, where we meet Cork as the former sheriff of a small Minnesota town. Half Ojibwe and half Irish, Cork is a complex character who seems flesh-and-blood real, a nice guy who is sometimes plagued by self-doubt, is often stubborn, is torn between two cultures and sometimes feels he belongs to neither, and whose fiercely protective love for his family is tempered by wisdom and tenderness. In Iron Lake, Krueger weaves Native American culture and spirituality seamlessly into a rich and complex story about loss, guilt, and the reclamation of self. As a reader, I loved it. As a writer, I closed the cover torn between the urge to analyze Krueger’s techniques, the desire to simply savor the language, and a sense of utter despair of ever writing anything this good.
Ordinary Grace, is a departure from the series. There’s a mystery in it, but don’t go into it expecting a whodunnit puzzle or thriller. At its heart, this is a literary coming-of-age novel in which the (slight but necessary) mystery provides the backdrop for the real story, which is the effect of the novel’s events on 13-year-old Frank Drum and his family. It’s a rich, beautiful novel about hope, despair, unrealized dreams, faith, and yes, grace. It haunted me for days.
No matter how blessed we are, if we live long enough, we all experience tragedy and disappointment. Some of us stoically move forward and ignore the pain in our hearts and the cracks in our facades. Some of us find solace in faith or in the support of friends. Some of us shut out the world and succumb to bitterness. Some of us rail against God, or simply turn our backs on Him. Some of us do all of the above at different times. I read once that that tragedy doesn’t change us; it reveals us. This book explores that idea and the choices we make in the face of despair. At one point, following a devastating loss, Frank’s father, the local pastor, gives a sermon. I started to share part of it with you because it’s one of the most profound and moving things I’ve ever read, but then I thought it might do Kent–and you–a disservice. It’s a powerful quote all on its own, but it might be best discovered for the first time within the context of the story.
If you like thought-provoking novels with rich language and complex themes, look no further than William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace.
If you’ve read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts about it in the comments. (No spoilers, please.)