Monday, December 9, 2019

"This Tender Land" by William Kent Krueger

It’s 1932, and American society is moving toward the pit of the Great Depression. Odie and Albert O’Banion are brothers, sent as orphans to the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota after the death of their father. Odie is 12 and Albert is 16, and they are the only white faces in a sea of Indian children at the school, removed from their parents for “reeducation.” 

The school is a nasty place, run by a nasty headmistress and her husband. Punishment is meted out by a sadistic worker, who’s rumored to do more than punish disobedient children. Odie has a particular problem with following the school’s rules, and he often finds himself in “the quiet room,” a tiny, unheated cell that more than resembles solitary confinement in a prison. The best thing about the cell is the rat, nicknamed Faria, which visits looking for crumbs. When not in the quiet room, boys will find themselves hired out to local farmers, with their pay going to the school.

The school situation isn’t entirely bleak; a young teacher finds ways to ease the harsh conditions and a janitor befriends Albert and watches out for Odie and their Indian friend Mose, at least until she dies in a tornado and leaves her young daughter an orphan. And then, one night, Odie is sent to the quiet room, and the sadistic worker decides the boy will finally get what’s coming to him. Odie has to fight for his life, and the worker will end up dead from a fall. Odie, Albert, and Mose decide to leave; they take Emmy, the teacher’s daughter, with them and head for the Gilead River. 

Soon they’re canoeing, with the vague plan of finding Odie and Albert’s aunt in St. Louis. In what becomes a kind of Huckleberry Finn story, the group will discover the good and evil in people and the evil of the times. Odie, in particular, will be fleeing from what he calls the Tornado God, the deity that seems only interested in punishment and destruction. The river, in addition to a highway, becomes a place of safety; the group learns that they are only really safe when they’re in the canoe, paddling for St. Louis.

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger is the story of Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy. It’s a coming-of-age story set in harsh economic climate of the 1930s, with its Hoovervilles, desperate people, con men, faith healers, and revivalists like Aimee Semple McPherson. Because it’s a time of extremes, we also see the goodness that exists. Most of all, it’s a story about a boy named Odie, who will learn things about himself he never knew and find ways to survive in what seems a dark, capricious world.

William Kent Krueger
Krueger has published 18 mystery novels in the Cork O’Connor series, set in the North Woods of Minnesota, and three standalone novels: Ordinary GraceThe Devil’s Bed, and This Tender Land. He’s received a number of awards and recognitions, including the Minnesota Book Award, the Loft-McKnight Fiction Award, the Anthony Award, the Barry Award, the Dilys Award, the Friends of American Writers Prize, and the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His last nine novels were all New York Times bestsellers. Krueger lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

This Tender Land is a moving, engaging novel, even as the narrative hurries a bit too fast toward the end. You find yourself urging Odie and his band to get back to the river to safety, as they’re chased by both villains along the way and the long arm of the school’s headmistress. It’s a story of goodness surviving in the midst of evil, told through the eyes of a young boy. 

Top photograph: Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School in Michigan, similar to the fictional school in Krueger's novel.

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