Wednesday, May 28, 2014

"Ordinary Grace" is Far From Ordinary

The explanation of the title of William Kent Krueger's Ordinary Grace is hidden deep within the novel.  It's slow getting there but so well worth the effort.  

This novel evokes a Minnesota summer of 1961.  The reader will be immersed in the feel of long ago days when children could stay out until dusk and a summer day never seemed to end.

"It was a summer in which death, in visitation, assumed many forms.  Accident. Nature. Suicide. Murder."  Frank Drum, then a young boy, tells the story of that fateful summer from his perspective forty years later.  He says "I still spend a lot of time thinking about the events of that summer.  About the terrible price of wisdom. The awful grace of God."

Beautifully written with sentences that you wish you could remember, this novel won the 2014 Edgar award.  This is one of those books that seems the less said the better.  It is almost summer now, the perfect time to start a haunting, unforgettable story about ordinary grace. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Orphan versus The Little People

It seems that there are so many historical novels lately about real people, especially wives.  We've had one of Frank Lloyd Wright's wives (Loving Frank),  Charles Lindbergh's wife (The Aviator's Wife), F. Scott Fitzgerald's wife (Z), one of Hemingway's wives (The Paris Wife), Edgar Allan Poe's wife (Mrs. Poe), even Benedict Arnold's wife (The Traitor's Wife) as well as Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker.  I'm not sure how that last one got in on this craze but it did.

I do know I'm getting tired of reading novels about real people.  Charles Lindbergh's wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, for example, was an acclaimed writer and won numerous honors and awards for her work.  Her Gift From The Sea was the number one non-fiction book in 1955.  Maybe it would be well to promote some non-fiction books, biographies and autobiographies about some of these same people.  That would make for a richer and more in depth experience.

Our book clubs recently read Orphan Train:  A Novel by Christina Baker Kline and The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb:  A Novel by Melanie Benjamin (who is also the author of The Aviator's Wife). The contrast is stark.   

Mrs. Tom Thumb is a fictionalized version of the life of  Lavinia Warren, a little person who married Charles Stratton, made famous by P.T. Barnum as General Tom Thumb.  The two little people made front page headlines when they married in 1863 and created a sensation wherever they went when they toured.  There apparently is very little information surviving about the life of Lavinia so maybe this is why the book is repetitious and boring.  Overall, our readers did not enjoy it and many didn't finish. We did comment that the best thing about this selection was to learn more about P.T. Barnum who was actually the most compelling character in the book.
General and Mrs. Tom Thumb
Orphan Train: A Novel is based on actual events but the characters are fictional.  Orphan trains operated from 1853 through the early 1900s.  There were at least 30,000 homeless children in New York City in the 1850s and the idea came about to take these children by train across the country and place them in homes for the hope of a better life.  Approximately 120,000 children were relocated to 45 states as well as Canada and Mexico.  

The fictional Orphan Train is a wonderful read about two very different women.  Vivian is 91 and lives a quiet life in a beautiful old mansion in Maine.  The almost 18 year old Molly is a troubled girl soon to be leaving the child welfare system without any direction or purpose.  Molly comes to stay with Vivian and learns that even though age separates them the two are very much alike.

The publisher says this is "a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of second chances, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are".  Orphan Train is worthy of your time.  You will learn a little bit of history that is unknown to many as well as get to know two characters that will stay with you for a long time.  
It is amazing how good writing and richly drawn characters can elevate a book from just so-so to wonderful.  Check out Orphan Train: A Novel today!