61 pages 2 hours read

Anthony Doerr

About Grace

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


About Grace is the debut novel of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anthony Doerr. Released in 2004, About Grace follows David Winkler, a man who dreams about the future and chooses to isolate himself from those he loves in fear of what his dreams foretell. However, when Winkler is able to change the outcome of one of these dreams, he returns to the life he left behind, hoping to rebuild relationships with those he left behind. About Grace has received praise for its symbolism, descriptiveness, and use of metaphor, a style that Doerr also used in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel All the Light We Cannot See.

This guide refers to the Kindle e-book published in 2004 by Scribner.

Plot Summary

David Winkler, a hydrologist, was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. As a young child, he began having dreams that would come true. The first of these dreams was of a man being hit by a bus while Winkler and his mother were walking near their home. As an adult, Winkler dreams of a woman he meets at a grocery store. When he sees this woman just as he dreamed, he learns that she works at a local bank and begins visiting her there. They begin an affair, meeting each Wednesday. The woman, Sandy Sheeler, is married to her high school sweetheart, Herman Sheeler, but is bored with her life. To compound her frustrations, her husband can’t have children. Therefore, when Sandy becomes pregnant, it’s clearly Winkler’s child. He suggests that they run away, but Sandy hesitates.

When Winkler gets a job in Ohio, he convinces Sandy to go with him. They marry, buy a house, and welcome a daughter, Grace. When Grace is just a few months old, Winkler begins having nightmares that she drowns during a flood. He tries to convince Sandy to leave with Grace, but she refuses. When the rains begin, Winkler does all he can to avoid the circumstances of the dream, but when that fails, he leaves. Winkler goes to New York, but when the dreams continue, he buys passage on a merchant freighter. Upon arriving in St. Vincent, Winkler tries continuously to call Sandy. When he reaches her, she’s with her ex-husband and tells Winkler to leave her alone.

Winkler is befriended by a chef named Felix and his wife, Soma, the clerk at the post office where he made his calls. He moves in with them and works with Felix to build an inn on their small island. He has a dream that Felix and Soma’s daughter, Naaliyah, drowns, and he sleepwalks. Felix and Soma then ask him to move out. He lives on the beach while working and saving money to go home, but a year after he left, Sandy sends him back every letter he wrote her and tells him to never come home. In his despair, he rows a dinghy into the ocean at night and nearly drowns.

Winkler spends the next 25 years on the island. His relationship with Naaliyah is close until she reaches adolescence and has a falling-out with her parents over their choice to leave Chile years before. Naaliyah drops out of school and moves to Barbados, where she completes secondary school, and then returns to St. Vincent, begins working at the Caribbean Institute of Oceanography, and attends university. Naaliyah contacts Winkler again when she decides to attend graduate school in the US and asks him for a reference letter. After this meeting, Winkler begins dreaming of Naaliyah drowning again.

Fearful for her, Winkler quits his job and moves to St. Vincent in order to protect her. He tells both Soma and Naaliyah about his dream, but only Soma believes him. After several months, Winkler’s dream comes true, but he saves Naaliyah from drowning. A short time later, Naaliyah is accepted into graduate school in Anchorage, Alaska. After her going-away party, a friend of Winkler’s points out that if he was able to change Naaliyah’s fate, he might have changed Grace’s fate by leaving Ohio. Winkler decides to return to the US to reunite with Grace and Sandy.

Upon arriving in Ohio, Winkler searches for Sandy and Grace with help from a librarian. He discovers Sandy’s obituary, dated two years earlier, but has little luck identifying Grace. He’s given a list of nine Grace Winklers living in the US, and he sets out to visit them all. Unfortunately, none are his daughter. He goes to Alaska to find Naaliyah, and they spend the winter in a remote camp in the Yukon, where Winkler reconnects with his former fascination with snowflakes.

Soma locates Herman Sheeler for Winkler, and Naaliyah encourages him to write to Herman. Winkler writes multiple letters and receives a favorable response that confirms Grace is still alive. When the winter is over, Winkler and Naaliyah return to Anchorage. Winkler visits Herman several times and learns that Grace was married, but the marriage was short lived. However, it resulted in a child, six-year-old Christopher. Winkler visits Grace at her workplace, but Grace isn’t interested in developing a relationship with him. Winkler begins spending time with Christopher while Herman cares for him during Grace’s work hours. Over several months, they become close. Winkler begins having dreams again, mostly centering on Herman and Christopher. When Grace learns that Winkler is spending time with Christopher, she puts Christopher in daycare, putting an end to the situation.

After three months, Herman decides to fix the relationship between Winkler and Grace by masterminding a surprise party for Grace on her birthday. However, on the day, Herman has to work late and isn’t available for the beginning of the party. When Winkler shows up alone with Christopher, Grace is angry but allows Winkler into her home. Unfortunately, Christopher runs away during a snowstorm to see some chrysalides near the mall, bringing to life one of Winkler’s dreams. Winkler quickly locates Christopher and brings him home safely, but that’s only half of his dream. Winkler knows that Herman is having a medical emergency. He rushes to Herman’s office with Christopher and gets Herman to the hospital. Although Herman survives, Felix passes away the same day.

Naaliyah returns home to St. Vincent, while Winkler and Grace forge a better relationship during Herman’s convalescence. Herman survives but is forced to retire, so he goes to San Diego to spend time with a girlfriend he met through a time-share property there. Winkler becomes a regular visitor in Grace and Christopher’s home.

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