“Ask me, God’s right here. In the dirt, the rain, the sky, the trees, the apples, the stars in the cottonwoods. In you and me, too. It’s all connected and it’s all God. Sure this is hard work, but it’s good work because it’s a part of what connects us to this land. This beautiful, tender land.” – from “This Tender Land”
Lovely words from a gifted writer. William Kent Krueger began his career as a mystery author with his long-running Cork O’Connor series, which featured the adventures of a former sheriff turned private investigator in northern Minnesota. Krueger’s books won numerous accolades including Minnesota Book Awards, three Mystery Writers of America Anthony Awards and several regional awards. Despite his success, a few years ago he turned his attention to the biggest mystery of all: God, aiming higher and hitting harder with a stand-alone novel, “Ordinary Grace” (Atria Books). Taking place in his native state of Minnesota, in a small town in 1961, the story begins with the discovery of a corpse, a young boy who was considered a little slow and whose body was found near the train trestle in the woods on the outskirts of town. The heartrending first sentence sets the tone: “All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses.” Was it an accident or something more ominous? Yet, that opening fatality is a bit of a red herring (and that initial mystery is never really resolved). It serves as a prelude to a string of other deaths that rock the world of Frank Drum, the 13-year-old narrator, and his kid brother Jake, who act as agents and witnesses to what unfolds over an awful, fateful summer.
Frank’s father, Nathan, is the town’s pastor, a would-be lawyer until his military experience in World War II left him broken and disillusioned and led him to his vocation. His artistic wife isn’t the ideal minister’s spouse and she doesn’t share his faith, though “the awful grace of God,” as it manifests itself within the novel, would challenge the faith even the most devoted believer. However, despite nameless corpses and inexplicable tragedies, ultimately the world of this book is one of redemptive grace and mercy, transforming both the narrator and reader alike.
“Grace” was highly praised, a book club favorite, and won multiple awards. Now, over a half decade later, Krueger has published “This Tender Land” (Atria Books) his 20th novel and first stand-alone story since “Ordinary Grace.” It’s a beautifully written and picturesque book about growing up and overcoming a childhood filled with neglect, abuse and racism during the Great Depression. It’s told through the eyes of a boy who interprets the world in all its beauty and cruelty and emerges hopeful on the other side.
Elements of the adventures of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer resonate throughout the story as four children try to escape their brutal life by taking a canoe down the Mississippi River. When the book opens, the narrator, Odysseus “Odie” O’Banion, is in his 80s, but he relating his story that begins in 1932, when he is age 8, and his older brother, Albert, is 12. They are suffering through a constant torrent of heinous treatment at the chaotic Lincoln Indian Training School where the administrative mantra is “Kill the Indian, save the man.” They were sent there after being orphaned when their bootlegger father was murdered (their mother had died years earlier). The only white children among the hundreds of Native Americans at the school, they are often severely punished by Mrs. Brickman, the sadistic superintendent, for misdeeds both real and imagined. Odie is the rebel while Albert tries to go by the rules. Their closest friends are the strongest kid in the school, Mose, a mute teenage Sioux whose tongue was cut off when he was a child, and Emmy, a smart little 5-year-old whose widowed mother is a teacher at the school. Emmy’s mother and a janitor are the only adults at the school who are kind to all the children.
Tired of the abusive treatment, seeking a place to call home and a sense of purpose in a world tumbling into despair – as well as escaping the aftermath of a fatal incident that killed Emmy’s mother – the four children leave the school and head to the river. On the Gilead, they will connect to the Minnesota River and eventually make their way onto the Mississippi with their goal being the city of St. Louis. There, the brothers hope their Aunt Julia, whom they have only seen a few times, will take them all in. Their odyssey is epic and, like Homer’s original one, both harsh and divine. Often just steps away from capture, the journey is filled with danger – from the rivers themselves and from the law. Newspaper accounts say that Emmy was kidnapped and law enforcement officers up and down the rivers are searching for them. The group knows, too, that Mrs. Brickman will stop at nothing to track them down for dark reasons of her own.
Except for the innocent Emmy, the children have learned not to trust adults and, for the most part, that is reinforced all along the way. They barely escaped a lunatic farmer who has imprisoned them to work; they become all too familiar with drunks and bootleggers, and wary of hobos and scammers. They try to keep a low profile, ditch the canoe in the weeds, and sneak into towns for food. They are still children, however, and when they find temporary shelter along the way with kind women – Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade, a prophet-like figure who can see into their souls, or Gertie and Flo, who feed them and give them jobs, or Mother Beal, who shares what meager food she has – readers feel their wounds beginning to heal and their cynicism starting to fade.
The ending of the novel is as gratifying as the original Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, but instead of that traveler’s bloody revenge, our hero finds friendship, family and a miracle that’s believable considering all that comes before. “This Tender Land” shows how the glorious American landscape unites us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole; it will undoubtedly earn Krueger more well deserved praise.