Ordinary Grace Summary and Study Guide

William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace

  • 67-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 39 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a professional writer with an MFA in Creative Writing
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Ordinary Grace Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 67-page guide for “Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 39 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Postwar, Midwestern Small Town and The Moral Majority versus The Outliers.

Plot Summary

The novel Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger, is set in the fictional Minnesota town of New Bremen, in the summer of 1961. The plot centers on a quartet of deaths that take place in and around the town over the course of that summer. The book is narrated by middle child Frank Drum; its narrative present is 2001, when Frank is fifty-three years old and living in St. Paul, Minnesota, though the vast majority of the text treats the 1961 New Bremen summer as its narrative present; barring the book’s prologue and epilogue, it’s uncommon for Frank to return to or acknowledge the novel’s narrative present while recounting this moment in his past.

Frank’s father, Nathan, is a Methodist minister for three area churches in and around New Bremen. Frank’s mother, Ruth, leads choir for church services. After college, Nathan had planned to be a lawyer, but served in World War II and came back a changed and devout man. Ruth, despite her presence in the church, is not a true believer; she drinks, smokes, and questions God’s existence over the course of the book.

Frank has an older sister, Ariel, and a younger brother, Jake. Ariel, a talented singer and pianist, is eighteen years old and has been accepted to Juilliard for the following fall semester. Her boyfriend, Karl Brandt, is the son of wealthy local beer magnates, and lives in the Heights, New Bremen’s wealthier area, while the Drums live in the Flats, which is middle- and working-class. Ariel also helps Emil Brandt, Karl’s uncle, with transcribing his memoir. Emil has returned to New Bremen blind and disfigured from a war injury; prior to serving, he was a successful music composer in Hollywood, “finding easy work in the music side of the film business…and in with a good-time Hollywood crowd” (63). Emil was also engaged to Frank’s mother, Ruth, before running out on her to seek fame in New York City, prior to his move to Hollywood. The tension between Nathan, Frank’s father, and Emil is palpable in multiple moments over the course of the book.

Jake Drum, Frank’s younger brother, has a stutter and is more devout than his cynical older brother. He is consistently the voice of conscience over the course of the book, often serving as the proverbial angel on Frank’s shoulder. Due to Jake’s speech disorder, he has a special relationship with Lise Brandt, Emil Brandt’s sister. Lise is deaf and lives with Emil in a converted farmhouse on the edge of town, where she spends the majority of her time gardening. Lise gets along well with Jake and is devoted to her brother, Emil, but largely untrusting of everyone else in New Bremen. Lise loathes to be touched, so much so that when she is, she flies into uncontrollable panic and rage.

The first death of the summer is Bobby Cole, a developmentally-disabled, adolescent boy who is hit by a train and killed while sitting on a railroad trestle that spans a stretch of the Minnesota River. Some in New Bremen suspect foul play. After hearing a group of adults discuss Cole’s death, Frank and Jake head to the railroad tracks and trestle, where they come upon a Native American male, Warren Redstone, standing over the corpse of an adult male at the river’s edge. Redstone identifies the dead man as “The Skipper,” an itinerant who may have served in WWII. Frank and Jake eventually reveal this information to Gus, a war buddy of Frank’s father who lives in the basement of the Methodist church across the street from the Drum family home. Over the course of the novel, Gus often serves as a surrogate uncle for Frank and Jake, and is the adult the boys turn to in moments of uncertainty about how to handle moral and ethical quandaries.

On the Fourth of July, following an Independence Day parade and recital, Ariel, Frank’s older sister, goes missing. Her body is found by Frank, floating in the Minnesota River. An autopsy is performed, and it’s learned that Ariel was hit in the head with a blunt instrument then dumped in the river, to drown.A number of characters in the novel are identified as possible suspects. Leading the way are Ariel’s wealthy boyfriend, Karl Brandt, town tough Morris Engdahl, and non-Anglo semi-drifter Warren Redstone. After Engdahl’s alibi checks out, suspicion next falls on Redstone, who Frank and Jake encounter at the edge of the river, where Redstone keeps a lean-to, for fishing. The sadistic Officer Doyle arrives with other adults, and Redstone runs away; later, Frank finds the man hiding on the tracks of the same trestle where Bobby Cole was killed, and ultimately allows Redstone to flee, without informing the adults tracking him.

With Redstone out of the picture, suspicion next falls on Karl Brandt, Ariel’s boyfriend. The medical examiner’s other discovery, in regard to Ariel’s death, is that Ariel was five to six weeks pregnant; it’s assumed that the child is Karl’s, and that Karl has killed her so as not to impede his future collegiate career and be forced to marry someone from a lower social standing. Karl subsequently reveals to Frank’s father, Nathan, that he is gay, and shortly after dies after driving his red roadster into a cottonwood tree. Whether or not Karl does this on purpose is left ambiguous.

For Frank, attention again centers on Warren Redstone as Ariel’s killer, until a trip to Emil and Lise Brandt’s converted farmhouse, where Frank has an epiphany and realizes it would be easy for the sightless Emil to have snuck down to the river and bludgeoned Ariel. Upon questioning by Nathan Drum, Emil admits to fathering Ariel’s child but says he is not the killer. Frank cuts his hand while helping Lise Brandt in the garden and discovers items that belonged to his sister, Ariel, in Lise’s medicine cabinet, identifying Lise as the killer. Shortly after, Frank and his family leave New Bremen to move to St. Paul, Minnesota. The book concludes with an epilogue set in 2001, where Frank tells of the of the fates of the numerous, surviving characters that populated his New Bremen past.

Ordinary Grace functions as both a mystery and a coming-of-age story. In regard to the latter, the book is a bildungsroman for both Frank and the Midwestern postwar small town. With its religious overtones, it also seeks to illustrate both the power and limits of faith. The novel won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 2014 and also won the Midwest Booksellers Choice Award in 2013. William Kent Krueger is a crime and mystery writer; many of his works are set in Minnesota, including the Cork O’Connor series and the Iron Lake Series.

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