This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger is a big-hearted novel that doesn’t disappoint.
Four orphans form an unlikely family in 1932 Minnesota: Motherless Odie O’Banion and his brother Albert, are the only Caucasians at the Lincoln Indian Training School, committed there after their father’s death; their friend Mose, a Native American boy whose tongue was cut out in an attack that left his mother dead; and Emmy, orphaned at six after a crushing tornado kills her mother. The Lincoln School is a dark place — DiMarco, a groundskeeper-cum-sadistic enforcer for the school superintendent, Thelma Brickman, also known as the Black Witch enjoys giving the children the belt for infractions large and small, but even more he enjoys isolating them in the “quiet room” where he can do with them as he wishes.
Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy eventually escape the Black Witch and her sadistic minions under the cover of darkness in a canoe, each of them searching for something; home, identity, and safety. They are running from the Black Witch, who claims that the older boys kidnapped Emmy. The police are after them, and they must hide their identities.
Krueger has a stethoscope to the heart of each of his characters — he knows what makes each of them tick, the longings buried deep in their broken and empty chambers, he also knows what each of them needs to become whole. The orphans travel the Gilead to the Mississippi hoping to eventually reach St. Louis where Odie and Albert remember having an aunt — their mother’s sister, Julia.
The cast is filled with remarkable characters: One-Eyed Jack, a hard-drinking farmer who has lost his family and is about to lose his farm; Sister Eve, a kind-hearted faith healer who may or may not be running a scam; and Aunt Julia who harbors more than one dangerous secret.
The novel is framed by an aging Odie, looking back on his early years:
“Our former selves are never dead. We speak to them, arguing against decisions we know will bring only unhappiness, offering consolation and hope, even though they cannot hear. “Albert,” I whisper, “stay clearheaded. Mose, stay strong. Emmy hold to the truth of your visions. And, Odie, Odie, do not be afraid.”
William Kent Krueger’s super power is creating characters with real depth and placing them in stories that reveal truths about what it is to be human in this world. This Tender Land is a novel in the tradition of the Great American Novel. Highly recommended for fans of Mark Twain and John Steinbeck, as well as contemporary author Leif Enger.
Thanks to Simon and Schuster and Netgalley for providing me with a digital advanced reading copy for review.
Lin Salisbury is host and producer of Superior Reads and Superior Reviews on WTIP 90.7 Grand Marais, Minnesota and on the web at http://www.wtip.org and http://www.superiorreads.blog. Listen to her author interviews and reviews on http://www.wtip.org and http://www.superiorreads.blog.