“Whatever happens, Odie, we’ll still have each other. We’ll always be brothers.”
Stephen King meets Charles Dickens in William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land. Set against the Great Depression Krueger’s Odyssean-like narrative takes inspiration from stories such as the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and/or Huckleberry Finn. Rather than offering a rehash of these tales, This Tender Land presents us with a series of complex and thought-provoking adventures. The experiences of our protagonists, four orphans who call themselves the vagabonds, will surely strike a chord with most readers.
Unwanted and neglected, these four children will experience hardship after hardship, and throughout their travels they will encounter many different sides of their society. Lincoln School ( a school where Native American, after being ripped away from their families, are ‘educated’ ) has left both physical and emotional scars in all of them. The only two white boys there Odie and Albert together with their best-friend Mose and Emmy, a recently orphaned girl of six, embark towards their own idea of home. In their journey towards safety and love they are hunted down by Lincoln School’s superintendent Mrs. Brickman, a woman who holds a particular grudge against Odie.
Soon the four vagabonds will learn that the world outside their prison-like school is a lot bleaker than they’d hoped for. The land is harsh, the people are desperate, and soon they come to understand that their ideas of ‘home’ do not coincide. As each child gains understanding of who they are and what they want, they risk drifting away from each other.
Odie, our narrator, particularly struggles with this. The cruelties he suffers time and again have made him cling all the more desperately to his chosen family. His lack of judgement and impulsivity often get the better of him, yet readers will find themselves sympathising with him even in his biggest mistakes. His gift for storytelling and playing the harmonica provide some truly heartfelt scenes.
In his odyssey Odie is forced to question if the end justifies the means…yet even as he lies, steals, and does even worse, he begins to interrogate his own morality making for some provoking reflections on justice, duty, and the extent to which we can categorise are choices as being right or wrong.
The vagabond’s mis-adventures, similarly to the winding river they travel on, will whisk them far away from Lincoln School. Krueger’s depiction of Minnesota is startling vivid. The land he writes is a harsh mistress indeed. It causes strife, poverty, starvation, and death, turning good men into husks of their former selves. Krueger also doesn’t flinch away from the time’s attitude towards child abuse and labour, the persecution and dehumanisation of Native Americans, and the large quantity of homeless people…within his tale there is cruelty, hatred, racism, greed…and yet the story never succumbs to darkness.
There is the beautiful friendship between the four vagabonds, as well as the big and small acts of kindness and love they witness along the way, and there is always hope for a better future.
Krueger’s poetic style provides plenty of melodic descriptions, thoughtful reflections, and heartfelt conversations. He has an ear for the way people speak, which makes his dialogues all the more authentic.
All of his characters were nuanced and believable. Regardless of our feelings towards a particular character we couldn’t easily label or dismiss them as being good or bad. Each character has individual circumstances that have shaped their worldview and their actions. Also Krueger makes it quite clear that often our narrator’s descriptions of certain characters are influenced by his own feelings towards them. Similarly to him, Odie’s friends are also affected and shaped by their journey. Unlike him however readers can only witness their character development from the outside, so that we see how they slowly begin to behave differently without always knowing what exactly is occurring ‘inside’ them.
I switched between reading this and listening to the audiobook edition and equally enjoyed both version. Readers who are looking for an emotional tale of forgiveness and hope should definitely consider picking up This Tender Land.
My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.75 stars (rounded up to 4)