“This Tender Land: a Novel” (Atria Books), by William Kent Krueger
Strands of the adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer on the Mississippi River echo throughout William Kent Krueger’s lyrical, compassionate “This Tender Land” in which four children try to escape their brutal life by taking a canoe down the Minnesota River.
Best known for his series about private investigator Cork O’Connor, Krueger delves deep into his second stand-alone novel for an affecting story about growing up and overcoming a childhood filled with neglect, abuse and racism during the Depression.
“This Tender Land” opens in 1932 when narrator Odysseus “Odie” O’Banion and his brother Albert endure a constant barrage of brutal treatment at the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota where they were sent after their bootlegger father was murdered. The brothers stand out as the only white children among the Native Americans at the school where Odie is the rebel while Albert tries to go by the rules. Their closest friends are Mose, a teenage Sioux whose tongue was cut off when he was a child, and Emmy, a bright little girl whose mother is a teacher at the school. Emmy’s mother and an ethical janitor are the only adults at the school who are kind to all the children.
Fed up with the abuse and trying to escape the aftermath of a fatal incident, the four set out on the canoe on the Gilead River that will connect to the Minnesota River. They plan to eventually make their way onto the Mississippi River with their final goal being St. Louis. There, the brothers hope their Aunt Julia, whom they have only seen a few times, will take them all in. But the trip is fraught with peril — from the rivers themselves and from the law. Newspaper accounts maintain that Emmy was kidnapped and law enforcement officers up and down the river are on the lookout for them, as are the cruel owners of the school.
Except for the naive Emmy, the children have learned not to trust adults and, for the most part, that is reinforced on the trip. Along the way, they are held captive by a mad farmer who treats them as quasi family and indentured servants, visit homeless camps and meet train-hopping hobos. But they also find unexpected kindness from a family in a shantytown, ghettoized Jews, a boardinghouse owner who offers room and food to anyone, and a faith healer who offers them a temporary home.
In “This Tender Land,” Krueger keeps the tension high as danger lurks on each turn of the river as well as illustrating how the trip tests the friends’ bond, especially the relationship of the brothers. The children will have to grow up and overcome their hardships before they can understand one character’s love of the land. Hard work is “good work because it’s a part of what connects us to this land. This beautiful, tender land,” says a farmer surveying his acres.
Krueger’s Cork O’Connor stories have earned the author several awards and his stand-alone “Ordinary Grace” won numerous awards including the Edgar and Anthony for best novel. “This Tender Land” should earn Krueger more accolades.q