This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger
Atria Books, 2019
A poignant coming of age novel set amid the grim backdrop of the Great Depression, This Tender Land is a Huckleberry Finn-esque type story. It’s about four children who escape a horrific Indian school by canoeing down the rivers of Minnesota to St. Louis.
And much more.
Narrated by its protagonist, Odie O’Banion, This Tender Land begins in the horrific Lincoln Trading School for Indians. This place could give Torquemada the willies.
Even though they’re not Indians, recently orphaned brothers Albert and Odie wind up at this wretched school along with their mute friend Mose, who’s Sioux. When we first meet the brothers, Albert is age 12. Odie is eight. They’ve been tossed into the school’s dreaded “quiet room” for allegedly doing something to tick off school leadership, the Brickmans.
Basic Plot & Characters
Four years later the brothers and Mose are joined by an orphaned six year-old, Emmy. Her father died years ago. Her mother was recently killed in a tornado that just missed the school. (Darn!)
Meanwhile, Albert is a mechanical genius. He can fix just about anything. Odie is… good at mischief. The kid’s got sand. Plus a dash of sass and the ability to think on his feet. He has to in order to survive that wretched “Indian School.”
So, when a tornado opens up an avenue of escape from the Indian School and the “Black Witch” who runs it, Odie sets things in motion. The other kids join him. The foursome escapes by canoe along the Gilead River with the local (corrupt) constabulary and the dastardly, black-hearted Brickmans hot on their trail.
Determined to get to Saint Louis and the protection of the O’Banion’s aunt, the quartet is taken captive by one-eyed Jack, a hard-bitten, solitary farmer with a bitter back story.
Escaping Jack, the “four Vagabonds” later meet the beautiful, kindly “Sister Eve” and her slick sidekick, Sid. Eve & Co. are with the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade (think Elmer Gantry). Odie works his magic with his harmonica (mouth organ), earning the Vagabonds a place with the traveling crusade. His harmonica rendition of Shenandoah could wring tears from a turnip.
Still on the lam, the brothers take their leave of Sister Eve and push on, determined to find their aunt and something else: Home.
This Tender Land is set in 1932 Minnesota amid the poverty, shanty towns and “Hoovervilles” of the Great Depression. It’s not until about halfway through the book – at page 176, to be precise – that we learn this story is told as a flashback. Here, the storyteller reveals that he’s now in his eighties and is recalling his younger days, providing a flavor of “memoir” to this lively novel.
Richly written, This Tender Land is chockful of robust, pungent prose and memorable characters. It’s six-page Epilogue may be the strongest part of this book. In it, Krueger eloquently “tucks in the tail” of his story and ties up loose ends.
I also appreciated how the author doesn’t beat you over the head with his theme. Rather, he takes his time, allowing the story to unfold at its own pace. Besides. Who can resist sentences like: “I found a small diner on a dingy street near the tracks, where the smell of frying bacon reached out, set a hook in my hunger, and reeled me in”?
This Tender Land is a wonderful story that gently reminds us that love is what makes a “tender land.”
A worthy read for anyone who enjoys a spirited story with a touch of history and homespun adventure.