Odie is a twelve-year-old storyteller and orphan looking for a home. As the reminiscent and therefore omniscient narrator of This Tender Land, he lets readers know from the beginning that he survives. But we don’t know until the end is how or if his companions are as lucky. What shines brightest for me is William Kent Krueger’s skill in pulling me along the rivers of Minnesota in 1932. The current was strong and I was powerless to resist as I read way past my bedtime several nights in a row.
Four orphans–three older boys and a little girl of whom they feel protective—must escape from a horrid, hate-filled Indian orphanage and school in Lincoln, Minnesota. In a canoe. A manhunt ensues. Jail or worse threatens them if they are captured. And just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do.
The children meet up with a wide variety of characters—good and bad—at the depths of the Depression. While they have little in the way of material resources, they have surprising knowledge and skills that allow them to stay alive and one step ahead of the authorities. This is a story of cruelty, discrimination, survival, devotion, and the family we create.
It’s also about the power of story as Odie, a born troublemaker who has spent much of his young life in solitary confinement transforms their journey into a fairy tale for the benefit of Emmy, their five-year-old companion.
“Stories are the sweet fruit of my existence and I share them gladly.”
“Maybe the universe is some grand story, and who says that it can’t be changed in the telling?”
“…I believe if you tell a story, it’s like sending a nightingale into the air with the hope that its song will never be forgotten.”
Odie sees and experiences pain in many forms.
“I’d heard little kids at Lincoln School cry all night long, and I’d heard Mose, too, but I couldn’t recall ever hearing a man cry this way. It made me think that no matter how big we grew or how old, there was always a child in us somewhere.”
“Everything that’s been done to us we carry forever. Most of us do your damnedest to hold on to the good and forget the rest. But somewhere in the vault of our hearts, in a place our brains can’t or won’t touch, the worst is stored, and the only sure key to it is in our dreams.”
Odie’s view of God evolves, from a God of judgment and vengeance to one of compassion and forgiveness.
“There is a deeper hurt than anything sustained by the body, and it’s the wounding of the soul. It’s the feeling that you’ve been abandoned by everyone, even God. It’s the most alone you’ll ever be. A wounded body heals itself, but there is a scar.”
“Never was a churchgoer. God all penned up under a roof? I don’t think so. 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.”
“If we were perfect, the light he shines on us would just bounce right off. But the wrinkles, they catch the light. And the cracks, that’s how the light gets inside us. When I pray, Odie, I never pray for perfection, I pray for forgiveness, because it’s the one prayer I know will always be answered.”
And he comes to understand the power of hope.
“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.”
“Open yourself to every possibility, for there is nothing your heart can imagine that is not so.”
This book belongs alongside Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as an epic journey of discovery. And if you’ve enjoyed more recent books such as Where the Crawdads Sing, Tiger Drive, or The Great Alone, I think you’ll find this another fine example of how a character can take the raw material of a less than ideal childhood and craft a life worthy of the retelling. Sure, it’s fiction, but loaded with truth. Highly recommend.