When I look back at my reading list thus far in 2019, it seems as though I’ve read a lot of books that take place during the Great Depression, or just after. It’s probably accidental, though I will admit to a somewhat perverse enjoyment in reading books set around this troublesome time. The people who lived through those years were/are so stalwart because they had to be in order to survive. They have an enviable sense of loyalty and tenacity.
Those attributes are readily displayed by the main characters of This Tender Land, a novel written by one of my favorite authors, William Kent Krueger. The novel is set during the Great Depression, mostly in Minnesota, but all along the Mississippi River into St. Louis. It tells the story of three boys and a young girl who are forced to grow up quickly.
The Lincoln School provides education and shelter for young Indian children as a way to integrate them into society — in other words, make them act like white kids. The problem is that it is run by a greedy and wicked woman and her dopey husband who does whatever she asks him to do.
Odie O’Banion and his brother Albert are not Native Americans, but find themselves there after both their mother and father died. Odie, in particular, finds it hard to fit in, and pays the price through beatings and solitary confinements. One day, things get out of hand, and he is forced to flee. He convinces his brother and another friend, an Indian boy named Mose, to steal a canoe and make their way down the Minnesota River towards the Mississippi. A young girl named Emmy, whose mother recently died in a tornado, convinces them to take her along so she doesn’t have to live at the school.
They meet many obstacles along the way, and encounter a variety of people — both good and bad — as they try to outrun those who are hunting them.
I love Krueger’s writing. It is lyrical and beautiful and firmly realistic. His characters, too, ring true. Twelve-year-old Odie is the narrator, and while I liked him a great deal, I will say that his dialogue seemed a bit advanced for his age. That didn’t interfere one bit with my enjoyment of the novel.
I found This Tender Land to be a very satisfying read.