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Review: This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

on October 2, 2020

This Tender Land
William Kent Krueger
Simon & Schuster AUS
2020, 450p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

For fans of Before We Were Yours and Where the Crawdads Sing, a magnificent novel about four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression, from the New York Times bestselling author of Ordinary Grace.

1932, Minnesota—the Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O’Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own.

Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphans will journey into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds. With the feel of a modern classic, This Tender Land is an en­thralling, big-hearted epic that shows how the magnificent American landscape connects us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole.

When I had a free trial of Scribd for a while, right at the beginning of the whole global pandemic/lockdown situation, I saw a few of this author’s books on there but until I received this one for review, I’d never read any. This was a beautifully written novel, a coming of age type of story about a pair of siblings, orphaned and sent to live in a boarding school for Native American children due to overcrowding in the state orphanage. It’s a cruel place where they are “loaned out” to local farmers to learn the value of hard work, where although they eat three meals a day, the food is thin and tasteless, barely enough to keep young boys growing and satisfied. There are cruelties as well, regular beatings with a strap and a dark room where punishment is metered out. And Odie, our main character, sees a lot of that room. And a lot of beatings. After an ‘incident’, Odie, his brother Albert, their friend Mose and a young girl named Emmy are forced to flee, using the canoe from Emmy’s place to sail down the Gilead River, heading for the Mississippi.

The ‘boarding school’ is tough to read about – some of these children are orphans, like Odie and Albert, who are actually the only two white children at the school. The others are taken from their homes on reservations and the like by the government, who rounded up Native American children to ‘better them’ in some sort of backward philosophy to make them white: “Kill the Indian, save the man”. It’s all very Stolen Generation type thing, the children are not even treated with any sort of kindness or respect: the Native American children have their hair cut, they aren’t allowed to converse in their languages or practice their cultural beliefs. There’s at least one ‘teacher’ in charge that the children know to avoid being alone with at all costs – beatings aren’t the only thing he enjoys torturing them with.

They are four young children on the run in a tough time. They have to be clever and resourceful, to think fast and on their feet and also, to know when to pick their battles. As four children, they aren’t always going to have the upper hand and the consequences of being caught by the authorities will be severe. More than anything, the three boys want to protect Emmy and she is a lot of the time, their primary motivation for the choices they make and the routes they take. They try to stick to the river as much as possible, to stay out of sight and lay low but that isn’t always possible. They meet many others on their journeys, some good interactions, some not so. Most of the people they meet leave a mark on at least one of them.

Odie as a narrator, sucked me into the story immediately. He was such a powerful voice, his frank portrayal of life at the boarding school and how the children did the best they could in what was a pretty grim situation. He wasn’t like his brother Albert, who cultivated an agreeable personality, who didn’t rock the boat. Odie was always in trouble, always on the receiving end of beatings and being locked in the punishment room. Every time it looks like something might go right for the brothers, there’s something else that comes along and ruins it. It’s to protect Odie that they leave and I loved their close knit protective togetherness. It’s not perfect by any means – Odie and his brother often disagree, sometimes they argue about what to do or where to go. These kids have to be clever, resourceful and courageous but they are also compassionate, trusting, loyal and fierce.

I haven’t read many books set in America during this time – the Great Depression. However this time left such a strong mark on those that lived through it or were the children of those that did and it’s inspired a lot of works that seek to explain this time and preserve it for those who didn’t experience so that they might understand what it was like. This is a classic coming-of-age type of story, a show of resourcefulness and courage and triumph over adversity. It’s children forced to be adults far too quickly in order to be free of violence and oppression and in the case of Mose, it’s the coming to terms with the systematic destruction of a people, of his people.

I found this a really engrossing read – William Kent Krueger has an extensive back list and is the winner of an Edgar Award for best novel – Ordinary Grace in 2014. I am definitely going to make an effort to seek out previous novels because I really want to read more of his work.


Book #193 of 2020

3 responses to “Review: This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

  1. This sounds like a novel I would appreciate. Thanks for drawing my attention to it!

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