In William Kent Krueger’s latest novel, four orphaned children escape an American Indian boarding school in 1932 and canoe down the Mississippi seeking a home. Their odyssey is epic and, like Homer’s original, by turns gritty and divine.
The four travelers include Odie, our narrator, a boy who like Homer has a talent for storytelling and music; his older brother Albert, whose mechanical skills get them out of many a jam; Mose, a Sioux teen suffering transgenerational trauma from horrors inflicted upon his people; and Emmy, a curly-headed 5-year old whose mother, one of the school’s few kind teachers, has just been killed by a tornado.
Together these waifs form a desperate and easy-to-cheer-for family as they push off into the Gilead en route to the Mississippi. What lies before them is the slim hope of a home in St. Louis. What lies behind them is a life of cruelty and abuse. What propels them onward is an accusation of murder and kidnapping.
This is a picaresque tale of adventure during the Great Depression. Part “Grapes of Wrath,” part “Huckleberry Finn,” Krueger’s novel is a journey over inner and outer terrain toward wisdom and freedom. We see the cruelty and abuse of Indian boarding schools. We see Hoovervilles and shantytowns, farmlands and meandering rivers, rocky bluffs and flooded river flats. We see poisonous snakes and tent revivals, manhunts, bread lines, soup kitchens. Always there is danger; always there is the threat of capture.
The four vagabonds, having barely escaped a farmer who has imprisoned them, become savvy about drunks and bootleggers, wary of hobos and scammers. On the run, they keep a low profile, ditch the canoe in the weeds, make forays into town for food.
But they are still children, and when they find temporary shelter along the way with kind women — Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade, an oracle-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 little food she has — we feel their wounds begin to heal and their cynicism begin to fall away.
“With every turn of the river since I’d left Lincoln School,” our young narrator muses, “the world had become broader, its mysteries more complex, its possibilities infinite.”
The ending of the novel is beautiful and surprising and as satisfying as the original Odysseus’ return to Ithaca — although instead of that wayward traveler’s bloody vengeance our hero finds friendship, family and a miracle that makes sense given all that comes before.
This is Kreuger’s 20th novel and his first stand-alone story since “Ordinary Grace.” Like “Ordinary Grace,” it is a compelling tale told through the eyes of a boy who translates the world in all its beauty and meanness and emerges hopeful on the other side.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Twin Cities writer and reviewer.
This Tender Land
By: William Kent Krueger.
Publisher: Atria, 450 pages, $27.
Events: 7 p.m. Sept. 3, Once Upon a Crime, Mpls.;
7:30 p.m. Sept. 4, Next Chapter, St. Paul;
7 p.m. Sept. 16, Barnes & Noble, Roseville;
7 p.m. Sept. 17, River Falls Library, River Falls, Wis.;
7 p.m. Sept. 18, Excelsior Bay Books, Excelsior.