Skip to content

This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger

December 28, 2022

This is a solid, conventional novel. And I don’t mean “conventional” as a slight. Just that this novel doesn’t pull any tricks, isn’t overly clever, isn’t trying to subvert expectations. It has strong characters, a plot that moves, some beautiful descriptions of landscapes, towns, characters. It’s a novel that wears its heart on its sleeve. It pulls at the emotions a little too consciously at points for my taste, but nothing too off-putting.  

The story takes place in the 1930s. Odie O’Bannion and his brother Albert are two Irish orphans, the only white kids at an Indian training school in Minnesota. They escape the brutal environment and steal a canoe, heading downriver toward the Mississippi, hoping to eventually find their aunt.

The book opens with a quote from the Odyssey (and Odie’s full name is Odysseus, in case you missed the connection), but it owes as much to Huckleberry Finn and, maybe a bigger influence, to Steinbeck. And if you told me a novel was part Huck Finn and part Steinbeck, I’m in.

There are also some interesting, well-research historical elements in the story – the Indian school being the most prominent. For centuries, religious groups and missionaries were paid by the U.S. government to set up boarding schools across the American West to basically “civilize” native children, giving them a white education while denigrating their native cultures. The schools were often brutal, abusive places, and many of the children had been forcibly separated from their families.

The school and the Great Depression play a backdrop as Odie, Albert and their group move across the landscape, a landscape that is almost a character in itself. Krueger’s descriptions of the natural settings, the rural areas, and the small towns the boys pass through are vivid and alive. And although I felt like he occasionally slipped in and out of a young boy’s voice (the story is told in flashback, so there’s a valid excuse), in moments of physical description the voice really comes alive, as when Odie describes a “woman of great age, a loose construct of folds and wrinkles, out of which two dark eyes studied me intently.”

It’s descriptions like this that draw you into every scene, even those that feel a little repetitive in the plot. The novel is cinematic, and the boys are mostly on the move, which keeps everything chugging along at a good clip.

Overall, a solid, classic American novel.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: