Ordinary Grace

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This book is set in June, 1961 in New Bremen, along the Minnesota River. Two young brothers, Frank and Jake Drum, are the sons of a preacher growing up in a small town in the Minnesota River Valley. Much of the story is regular people living a regular life in a small town. Several people die in the story - but death is a part of life.

On a scale of 1 - 5:

Sex: 2

Religion: 4

Gruesome: 1

Suspense: 2

Morality: 2

Sex - a couple sought counseling from a pastor regarding frequency of their sexual intimacy (p. 148), a young boy ogles a teenage girls' breasts in a bikini. (p. 224), a boy looking at a magazine cover with a lady intended to be a sex object (p. 411)

Religion - the father of the main character is a preacher and although there are several scenes dealing with normal events through the course of his job as well as his outlook on life and how he handles difficult situations the book is not preachy and allows a few characters to privately question their own belief in God

Gruesome - we are spared any bloody details of the deaths but nobody passes away of old age in their sleep so just the fact that there are people dying in slightly traumatic ways makes it a bit gruesome

Suspense - there is a bit of who-dunnit and several fingers point at the wrong person

Morality - some talk of teens having sex before marriage (235)

I am ambivalent about this book. It was a nice story and had moderate entertainment value, but I never fell in love with the story. I wanted to keep reading to see who the killer was - but it was missing any "wow" factor.

Discussion Questions

In the Prologue the author quotes the Greek playwright Aeschylus, "He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God." What does this quote mean to you? The quote is revisited at the end of the book (p. 499) Did your understanding of the quote change from 500 pages earlier.

How do you feel about phone calls in the middle of the night? (ref. p. 1)

Shotgun "was the rule" for the narrator and Jake. (ref. p. 16) What "rules" did you have growing up with your siblings?

The mother named all of the family cars. (ref. p. 17) Have you ever named a car? Tell about it.

Jake suggests that the reason Bobby died was so that, "he won't have to worry about everybody making fun of him." (p. 27) What do you think of this as an explanation?

The narrator, son of a preacher, said he didn't believe in the "Pearly Gates version" of Heaven (p. 44). Is this unusual for a Preacher's Kid? Is this realistic for his age and experiences?

At Bobby's funeral, Gus was the only one who stood up to "offer something in memory" (p. 48). Why do people seem to have a hard time with sharing memories at a funeral? How do you suppose the family feels when people do or don't share?

What do you think really happened with Bobby's death? Was it an accident? Suicide? Foul play?

Discuss Ariel's advice that the boys didn't need to tell anyone about the Indian because he wasn't scary or dangerous (even though he put his hand on Jake's leg). Is the lack of alarm due to her innocence or a sign of the times? (ref. p. 78)

Frank regretted not taking advantage of the opportunity to ask his dad about death (p. 82). What conversations do you regret not having?

How did you feel about the author's blatant foreshadowing, such as in the last two paragraphs of Chapter 4?

Do you agree that the family needed to attend all three services where the father preached? (Ch. 5)

Emil Brandt is introduced on pg. 90 as Ariel's music teacher and the "mother's good friend since childhood" and also her ex-fiance. On pgs. 92 & 103 we are introduced to Ariel's boyfriend Karl, whom we learn also has the last name of Brandt, yet no connection is drawn for us between the two Brandt families. Did you make any assumptions? What questions did this raise for you? How did you feel on pg. 113 when the relation was finally confirmed. (Ch. 7)

Nathan seems to explain Mr. Klement's abusive behavior as a result of drinking a lot because he had been a POW. Ruth seems to think it is no excuse because plenty of other men handle it without being abusive. Emil thinks, "that it wasn't so much the war as what we took into the war. Whatever cracks were already there the war forced apart, and what we might otherwise have kept inside came spilling out." (p. 123) How has the attitude towards soldiers changed in the last half-century?

Frank described eating canned spaghetti with ground beef on a Sunday evening when his father wasn't home and then he and his brother watched Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color. (p. 107) This sounds like a comfortable childhood routine. Share a fond and comforting memory from your childhood.

Read aloud the sermon from the Indian's funeral and discuss: "God never promised us an easy life. He never promised that we wouldn't suffer, that we wouldn't feel despair and loneliness and confusion and desperation. What he did promise was that in our suffering we would never be alone. And though we may sometimes make ourselves blind and deaf to his presence he is beside us and around us and within us always. We are never separated from his love." (p. 129)

Frank, in regards to Karl, was "marveling at the ease of his life and at the same time feeling the slow invasion of a resentment that had never been there before". (p. 236) What stemmed this resentment?

There was much foreshadowing about the third death? Did you guess who it would be? Who else did you think might be number three?

"The death of [no spoiler] and of hope and of something that I didn't see at first but whose loss would reveal itself to me more and more as time went on." (Chapter 23) What is the something that they didn't see?

Did you suspect the truth about Karl? (p. 424)

On p. 467-468 the meaning behind the title is revealed. What do you think of the implication? Do you think there are any other meanings of the title?

Who did you suspect as the killer? At what point did you figure out who the real killer was? When did you recognize the murder weapon? Were you surprised by Emil's confession? (p. 494)

Do you feel that the author's descriptions of Lise's attempts to speak were fair and realistic representations or derogatory? (ref. p. 496, 510 & others)

Do you agree with Frank's explanation of how memories work, "It seems to me that when you look back at a life, yours or another's, what you see is a path that weaves into and out of deep shadow. So much i lost. What we use to construct the past is what has remained in the open, a hodgepodge of fleeting glimpses." (p. 522) and "there is no such thing as a true event ... accounts of what happened depend upon the perspective from which the event is viewed" (p. 528)?

Theme Ideas

Food is mentioned throughout the book. Here are several different options:

  • root beer in frosty mugs like the boys got at the drugstore after working in their grandfather's yard. (p. 50) and later like Frank and Gus got (p. 322)

  • Often Frank's family had their Saturday night meal around the backyard picnic table: hamburgers with trimmings, potato chips, carrots and celery sticks, and milkshakes. (p. 67)

  • tomato soup and (Velveeta) grilled cheese sandwiches like on p. 78 - an alternative Saturday night meal when Frank's dad was out working.

  • tuna casserole (p. 89) and Jell-O Salad (p. 94) like they took to Mrs. Klement.

  • canned spaghetti with added ground beef (p. 107)

    • cocktail martinis, roasted chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy and asparagus like when the grandfather and his wife came to dinner. (p. 141-142)

      • "fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy, buttered carrots, [and] baked squash" (p. 195) like Lise made the first night Ariel and Jake stayed with her.

  • grape nehi and beer like the beverages mentioned when they were at Danny's house playing Risk and watching the ball game with Danny's uncle. (Chapter 13)

  • "Broasted chicken and French fries and coleslaw" (Chapter 15)

  • "Fried bologna sandwiches with chips and cherry Kool-Aid" (p. 253)

  • "cotton candy and hot dogs and bratwurst and mini-donuts" (Chapter 17)

  • casseroles, homemade bread and pies like the family received after the death (p. 301)

  • "peanut butter and jelly sandwiches ... with potato chips and cherry Kool-Aid" (p. 412)

  • "lemonade and sugar cookies" (p. 417) like Ginger served when they went to ride horses

  • Gus's dinner - diced potatoes coated with flour and cooked in oil, fried diced-Spam with scrambled eggs and cheese and milk (p. 418)

  • "ham and fried chicken and au gratin potatoes and green bean casserole and a couple of salads and some rolls and cookies and dessert bars. ... cold lemonade and Kool-Aid and coffee." (p. 465) like after the funeral

  • ham sandwiches, macaroni-pea salad, watermelon slices and potato chips (p. 484)

  • German dinner like the men after the cemetery (p. 524)

Make a gathering game that matches foreign named geographic locations to their English equivalent names, such as on pg. 57 "Lac qui Parle" means the lake that speaks.

Music is woven throughout the story, including:

Decorate with a chess board like Emil and Nathan played. Include an old-fashioned typewriter like Ariel used to type Brandt's memoir. (p. 118)

The Fourth of July was a turning point in the story. Decorate with red, white and blue. Play patriotic music. Serve food and host activities that go along with the holiday in your region.

Organize a drive and make a donation to an organization that helps immigrants - just as the Drum's donated Ariel's things. (p. 502)