The summer of '61 in New Bremen, Minnesota, begins with death, the first inkling of tragedy on the horizon in the fertile Minnesota River Valley, where the winding railroad tracks parallel the river like a snake of steel. Thirteen-year-old Frank Drum, son of a minister and an artistic, somewhat temperamental mother, is on the cusp of maturity, one formed of tragedy and a premonition that the world of childhood will soon be left behind. Unbeknownst to the community, trouble is about to destroy their small town's harmony, wreaking its own particular devastation.
Simple times demand less from residents grown accustomed to the rituals of community, an assortment of neighborly families and eccentric individuals, men still haunted by their experiences in WWII. Old prejudices simmer in an environment not yet called upon to face its shortcomings. Crime is low, churchgoing people raise children as they were raised, and personal secrets and private shames are carefully hidden behind closed doors, whispered over backyard fences or spread in snippets of gossip at church socials. Divorce is uncommon, husbands and wives tethered in harmony or dissonance, a young president in Washington the harbinger of a bright future for the country. Death arrives abruptly, Frank unexpectedly attuned to its mournful call, unwittingly preparing to step from childhood into unknown territory.
Because the author draws from his own background and experience, the novel often has the flavor of a memoir: slow, contemplative, a boy recalling details of the summer of 1961. Even the death of Bobby Cole, a thirteen-year-old contemporary and fellow student found in pieces on the railroad tracks and the later discovery of an itinerant's lifeless body under a railroad bridge are viewed through the context of family. Frank's perspective is still shaped by those he loves: his mother, Ruth; minister father, Nathan; sister Ariel, eighteen; and brother Jake, eleven. Like the steel tracks that follow the river, Frank's adolescent awakening in the adult world parallels the upheavals of that fateful summer.
A mystery writer, Krueger understands the importance of pace. Frank often digresses to the myriad details of a man remembering his boyhood, of family, of townsfolk, of men seared by wars they have fought, of the unsettling threat of angry men incited to violence, or the unfathomable grief of a mother who has lost a child. All is observed, interpreted and filtered through Frank's perspective, with Jake's surprisingly helpful additions. Beginning with Bobby Cole's death and Frank's discovery of the homeless man under a railroad trestle with his younger brother to the eventual loss of one much closer to the family, each new death brings more questions. The boys turn to Nathan for answers but are also given to their own
interpretations of a New Bremen suddenly unrecognizable in its violent wrenching from normal to the nearly catastrophic.
Peopled with characters both noble and flawed, the novel harbors a darker mystery, the familiar ease of small town life shadowed by the inexplicable behavior of adults, their secrets, lies, betrayals, even murder. The barriers between childhood and adulthood are breached by death as Frank parses each change, each new blow in an attempt to make sense of it. Anxious Jake is close behind, imparting his own particular insights to the situations they encounter. The keys to the grown-up world are hard-won, the price of wisdom extravagant: the boys, in their father's embrace witnessing "the awful grace of God."