I’ve been away for a short break, and I took the opportunity to read several books. This blog entry contains a review of one that I particularly enjoyed, and learned from.
William Kent Krueger’s lovely book is deceptively gentle as it tells the tale of a thirteen-year-old boy’s transition to adolescence in early 1960s rural Minnesota in a summer defined by death. This unlikely setting is beautifully handled by Krueger as he creates vivid, real characters of the boy’s family and friends.
There’s more than a wink at Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird here, with the child narrator and his wise quietly-spoken father, a lawyer cum priest who dominates the narrative. There’s even a Boo Radley character in the form of an enigmatic and mysterious Indian who comes and goes. And there is a terrible crime at the heart of the story that serves as the skeleton on which the flesh of the story hangs.
But it is Krueger’s beautiful prose that is the book’s strength. At times I just had to put it down to marvel at what I’d read, the simple and yet glorious way he makes the mundane special, with small observations and great writing combining to leave the reader in awe.
Frank's mother, a tragic and unwilling participant, almost a bystander in the story, is a gifted musician who finds meaning to her unhappy life by sharing her musical gifts in the community. Indeed, music plays a prominent role throughout, serving as both a soothing and a jarring repeating theme. She sings at one of the funerals that are a characteristic of the book:
When my mother finally sang it was not just a hymn she offered, it was consummate comfort. She sang slowly and richly and delivered the heart of that great spiritual as if she was delivering heaven itself and her face was beautiful and full of peace. I shut my eyes and her voice reached out to wipe away my tears and enfold my heart and assure me absolutely that Bobby Cole was being carried home. It made me almost happy for him, a sweet boy who didn’t have to worry anymore about understanding a world that would always be more incomprehensible to him than not. Who didn’t have to endure anymore all the cruel mockeries. Who would never have to concern himself with what kind of man he would grow into and what would become of him when his aged parents could no longer protect and care for him. My mother’s singing made me believe that God had taken Bobby Cole for the best of reasons.
And when she finished the sound of the breeze through the doorway was like the sigh of angels well pleased.
Frank himself is a typical thirteen year old, all exploring, discovering and curiosity, a ward to his younger brother who serves as a companion and a foil for his adventurism. Frank is curious, questioning, rebellious and smart, always pushing the bounds of acceptability and safety. Much of what he learns, and narrates, comes from overheard conversations and observations that result from snooping, and the reader is drawn into this exciting world, becoming a co-conspirator in his naughtiness.
But it is the father who dominates the book, even when, especially when he’s not present. His wisdom, his gentleness, his kindness and understanding in the face often of great provocation and unbearable tragedy, are the product of an unspoken horror that took place during World War 2. We never find out what happened; it’s enough that we know that this event formed him, humbled him and taught him to never condemn. Frank’s father is someone who has known brokenness, who like the patriarch Jacob walks with a limp, a man whose unbearable pain and guilt has prepared him for the unspeakable sorrow to come. His wisdom and strength of character provide the backbone of the narrative, but they are not demonstrated in the expected way. His strength comes from his weakness. One one occasion, when he preaches at the Sunday service following the death of someone close to him, the reader gains an insight into the remarkable, extraordinary grace that defines his life and character:
“In your dark night, I urge you to hold on to your faith, to embrace hope, and to bear your love before you like a burning candle, for I promise that it will light your way.
“And whether you believe in miracles or not, I can guarantee that you will experience one. It may not be the miracle you’ve prayed for. God probably won’t undo what’s been done. The miracle is this: that you will rise in the morning and be able to see again the startling beauty of the day.
“Jesus suffered the dark night and death and on the third day he rose again through the grace of 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.
“I invite you, my brothers and sisters, to rejoice with me in the divine grace of the Lord and in the beauty of this morning, which he has given us.”
My father’s eyes swept over the congregants who filled the pews silent as dandelions with upturned faces. He smiled and said, “Amen.”
This is a beautiful book. The contrast is made between a child railing against the unfairness and the tragedies that so often beset us all as against the essential need to draw on the grace of God for those things we cannot ever understand or explain. The result is a book to treasure, to read again and again, to savour and to learn from. I loved it.