The summer of 1961 is life changing for Frank and Jake Drum, brothers growing up in New Bremen, Minn. A series of tragedies nearly upend their family and others in the community.
“Ordinary Grace” by William Kent Krueger awakens memories of an era when life was simple, but not necessarily better — when prejudice ran rampant and anyone who deviated from the cookie-cutter norm was ostracized.
In this atmospheric novel, Main Street comes alive, the scent of apple pie cooling on the sill, and the strains of a choir singing “The Old Rugged Cross” exist alongside town characters with dubious morals and chilling incidents that aren’t clarified until the novel’s final pages. Forty years after that fateful summer, Frank recalls how the season’s ominous events shook New Bremen and his family.
As minister’s kids, Frank, 13, and Jake, 11, are privy to bad news that comes at all hours of the day and night. Comforting others is their Methodist father’s responsibility, one he accepts as God’s will. But his wife “resents his profession.” She throws herself in her church music and encourages her talented 18-year-old daughter to go to Julliard, all the while regretting her lot in life and pining for a lost love.
The minister is kind, wise and patient, a man changed by his combat experiences in World War II, a past only Gus, his war buddy, knows about. The boys trust Gus when he’s sober, and turn to him because he doesn’t treat them like children, but initially not even Gus knows the secrets Frank harbors about a Native American that stole away in the night. Frank sees him in the woods by the river along the tracks where a young boy has been found dead, perhaps killed playing on the tracks or was he murdered?
This death is the first in a domino-fall of horrible incidents, of dreams shattered and hearts irrevocably broken. There’s no “getting into” this book — “Ordinary Grace” is engaging from the first page, a quiet novel that unfurls its sad story slowly, but eloquently, leaving its mark on your heart.
It’s a black and white photograph many recognize, a depression-era image of a destitute woman, brow wrinkled in worry, children resting their heads on her shoulders. Dorothea Lange’s photograph, “Migrant Mother,” encapsulates the desperate dust-bowl years and the plight of the itinerant workers forced to work the fields and pick crops under deplorable conditions.
“Mary Coin,” a gripping new novel by Marisa Silver, imagines the life of the woman pictured, the photographer who captured her plight and a modern-day professor who uncovers a secret about his past. The professor is facing the death of his father, and with it any link he has to his history, a past shrouded in mystery.
The novel opens in 2010, with Professor Walker Dodge, and then seesaws back and forth as it follows the life paths of Mary Coin and photographer Vera Dare.
As a young girl Mary has known trouble, the death of her father and beloved sister. Coin’s father dies a drunk, leaving Mary’s mother to eke out a living. When Mary gets pregnant she’s only a teenager, but very much in love with her new husband, Toby, a steady provider until the Depression. Suddenly there are no jobs. The family takes to the road, traveling west to seek work in the fields to support their children, but it isn’t long before Toby takes ill and dies.
With six mouths to feed, Coin toils from dawn to dusk to keep her children from starving. Overcome with toil and worry she seeks solace in the arms of a man whose family owns the land she works, a man who fathers yet another child — a son he initially wants nothing to do with.
Photographer Vera Dare happens onto Mary as she sits alongside the road in a broken down vehicle at the height of her despair. Dare was commissioned by the government to take pictures that show the hardships suffered by the workers, in hopes of offering them relief.
In a chance meeting, Coin and Dare’s lives intersect, and the women are forever connected by a photograph that provides answers for Professor Dodge. In this marvelous book, the narrative threads of the three fascinating characters are woven together with skill making for a thoroughly enjoyable read.
Some authors become personal favorites. Once we finish one of their books we anxiously await the publication of their next literary treat. Ron Rash fits the bill. His novel “Serena,” published in 2009, holds a spot on my bookshelf, as do his novels “The Cove” and “Saints at the River.”
Rash scores high marks again for “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a collection of edgy short stories, long on angst and endings that leave you hanging. His compilation of 14 stories is thematically cohesive and true to the title of his book.
Gold is a metal with permanence and strength, a treasure that holds its value when all else fails. In each of Rash’s short stories, nothing is a sure bet, nothing can be counted on to last, not youth, or love, or sensible actions. Rash leads us to believe a character will act in a certain way, then he pulls the rug out from under us.
In “The Trusty,” set during the Depression, a man on a chain gang believes a homely woman stuck out in the hills is going to help him escape — and in “Cherokee,” it appears a couple down on their luck might really capitalize on a casino winning streak. Black humor abounds in “A Sort of Miracle,” as two no-accounts, along on an illegal bear hunt, offer their brother-in-law some sincere, but lethal advice, when he’s injured in a fall in the woods.
This collection is not “happy-feel-good,” other than Rash’s last story, “Three A.M. and the Stars Were Out,” the stirring tale of two aged veterinarians helping a cow birth her calf in the middle of the night while they quietly share memories — the fragility and brevity of life achingly apparent. It’s simply a beautiful story.
There are plenty of underdogs and misguided souls in “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” They struggle and repeatedly come up short time. But readers won’t.
Rash has written another winner.