“This Tender Land” by William Kent Krueger; Atria Books; September 2019; 464 pp; $27.
By Ann Jonas
Author William Kent Krueger is chiefly known for his series of 18 Cork O’Connor mystery novels, set mainly in northern Minnesota. But when, in 2013, he wrote the novel “Ordinary Grace,” he gained a bunch of new readers and fans. “Ordinary Grace” was a beautifully written coming-of-age literary novel that quickly became many readers’ favorite read. Krueger then signed a contract with his publisher to write a companion novel. According to his website, Krueger finished the novel, but was so dissatisfied with the book that he asked Atria to cancel its publication. Then, for the past three years, he wrote and perfected an entirely different book, the newly published “This Tender Land.”
Like “Ordinary Grace,” Krueger’s new novel is set near a river in southern Minnesota, this time the fictional Gilead River, a tributary of the Minnesota River. The story is told in the first person; Odie O’Banion, a 12-year-old orphan with a penchant for rebellion, is the narrator. In the book’s prologue, Odie, now an old man, states that the tale he is going to tell took place in the summer of 1932.
Odie and his 16-year-old brother, Albert, who is a rule follower, have been living at the Lincoln Indian Training School for the past four years, since their father and mother died. They are the only white children residing in the former military outpost converted into an Indian boarding school. Conditions at the school are harsh and the staff is, for the most part, cruel and abusive.
Circumstances get incredibly difficult for Odie at the Lincoln School and so he, Albert and two other orphans, Moses and Emmy, run away by hopping on a canoe, heading down the Gilead, with the hopes of making it to St. Louis by way of the Minnesota and then Mississippi Rivers. Odie and Albert are pretty sure they have an aunt in St. Louis. Moses is a mute Sioux orphan and Emmy is a 6-year-old girl whose kind, widowed mother worked at Lincoln School until a tornado took her life.
The four orphans, who all have quite different personalities and aptitudes, encounter a variety of situations along the way. The Great Depression is happening, and the group meets up with an assortment of interesting characters, including a struggling farmer, a traveling faith healing company, and clusters of homeless families displaced by the difficult economic times. Danger and adventure are regular occurrences, but the four also experience kindness and generosity. There are aspects of spirituality throughout the book as Odie is angry with God for his tough circumstances and, as a result, struggles with his faith.
The book’s epilogue gives readers a summary of what happened to the four vagabonds and many of the other characters after that summer of 1932, wrapping up a rich tale of self-discovery, adventure, and great story-telling.
Krueger’s family history and research play an important role in this novel; it’s clear that this story is close to his heart. Krueger writes with feeling and grace, causing readers to care genuinely for the four orphans and to savor his beautiful writing.
“This Tender Land” is available in bookstores everywhere, including the College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University Bookstores.
Ann Jonas is the general book buyer for the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University.