In the Fall of 2013, as I considered text selections for my new course The Road Not Taken, the recently published novel Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger caught my attention. I was struck by the complexity of the characters and the nod to our own Minnesota history. But, I hesitated on committing the novel to my syllabus because it was only available in hardcover and I felt the expense to students was a burden. In the end, I could not deny that the novel was brilliant, beautiful and that it fit surprisingly well with my theme of young people making poor choices with often devastating consequences.
As it turned out, my students never complained about the cost and, in fact, declared that it was their favorite book of the semester. When I told them that Krueger lives right here in St. Paul, my students were astonished and asked that I find a way for them to meet this local author.
At that time, Krueger was already the author of the wildly successful Cork O’Connor detective series. I was certain that this famous author, whose work is frequently listed on the New York Times bestseller lists, would not have time to visit a local University classroom. But, as he later said to me, “All you had to do was ask.” Sure enough, Kent walked in, sat down and facilitated one of the best class discussions of the semester.
Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” suggests that in life, there is no right path. There is only the path you choose. Ordinary Grace opens with the mysterious death of young Bobby Cole and the character of Frank as a reflective adult recognizing that he “should have known him better, been a better friend” (Prologue). For Frank, the summer of 1961 becomes a time of heartbreaking loss, misunderstandings, and the painful recognition that there are things we cannot bear, but must accept. Throughout the novel, Frank wonders if the events of that fateful summer could have turned out differently if he had made different choices and, quite literally, taken a different road.
Krueger does a remarkable job of describing the agonizing struggles of young adults. Ariel, a talented musician has been accepted to Juilliard, yet inexplicably decides to forgo this opportunity and stay in the small, unsophisticated town of New Bremen, MN. Frank struggles with what he thinks he knows from what might be the ultimate truth about a homeless Native American. Another character struggles with the secret of his sexual orientation. Even the town bully Morris provides an opportunity to recognize that mean-spirited behaviors probably come from a life of loneliness and indifference.
Another intriguing aspect of Kent’s work is the way he weaves Native American Culture into his writing. Although not originally from Minnesota, after he moved here in 1980 he became fascinated with the beauty of the Boundary Waters and the rich Ojibwe culture. In fact, his main character in the Cork O’Conner mystery series is half Irish and half Ojibwe. Ordinary Grace provides an opportunity to speak to the Great Uprising of 1862, a part of Minnesota history that our public schools often either ignore or misrepresent. In the years preceding the uprising, thousands of white immigrants settled in Minnesota. Although the settlers and Native Americans appeared to co-exist peacefully, the truth is that the Native people had their land taken, game poached and, in the summer of 1862, their annual annuity payment was inexplicably delayed by Congress. The Sioux launched a brief rebellion against the white settlers in Southwestern Minnesota and nearly a thousand settlers were brutally killed. For generations, the story of this uprising has been skewed to put blame on the Sioux tribes, although their people were in fact starving and dying from malnutrition and disease. On December 26, 1862, thirty-eight Sioux braves were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota. This remains the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In Ordinary Grace, the misunderstood character of Warren Redstone opens the door for discussion about the prejudice and overall unfair representation of our Native Minnesota people.
In the spring of 2014, Ordinary Grace won the prestigious Edgar Award for the best mystery novel. It is recognized as a classic work of literature with a suspenseful plot, poignant characters, and beautifully written prose. Teachers will find that there are many ways to approach this novel, only a few of which I have listed here. The story truly does explore “The Road Not Taken,” and yet in the words of Robert Frost we recognize that we cannot go back and choose the other road, “Yet knowing how way leads on to way, / I doubted if I should ever come back” (14-15). Frost affirms that we only have one chance to choose our road in life.
With a stunning, award-winning novel and his humble, down-to-earth personality, William Kent Krueger has become a highly sought- after speaker. This month, we are privileged to have him visit our campus and address a larger audience. Krueger will read from Ordinary Grace and participate in an audience Q & A. A book signing will follow this event. Please join us for a memorable evening with a man who genuinely enjoys engaging his readers.
Frost, Robert. “The Road Not Taken.” You Come Too. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002.
Jeannie Hofmeister is an adjunct professor in the English Department. She is primarily interested in 19th-and 20th-Century American Literature and regularly uses work from Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, Willa Cather, Robert Frost, and Sylvia Plath in her classes.