This Tender Land
by Bryan McBride, LIS Librarian
About twenty years ago, William Kent Krueger began writing a Native American mystery series that takes place in the Boundary Waters of Minnesota with a main character named Cork O’Connor. In these books, Krueger introduces us to folklore of the Ojibwe tribe. The inclusion of Native American folklore places the series in one of my favorite mystery genres, alongside Craig Johnson’s Longmire and James Doss’ Charlie Moon mysteries. In 2013, Krueger set aside the Cork O’Connor series and wrote a book called “Ordinary Grace,” winner of the Edgar Award for best mystery. Despite it being an older book in our collection, patrons often still need to place a hold on the library copy and wait for their chance to read it. That’s the way it worked for me, but it was worth the wait. American literature filled with common philosophy, theology, and insights into human nature.
This year, Krueger released a novel called “This Tender Land.” It is a coming-of-age story about four children, whose lives intersect in 1932 at the Lincoln Indian Training School, on the banks of Minnesota’s Gilead River. The school is a brutal place, where Native American children are taken from their families and placed to have their culture stripped away from them by whatever means necessary. The central character is Odie O’Banion, who is at the school with his older brother, Albert. They lost their parents at a young age and are the only white children at the school. Albert fares okay because he toes the line. Odie, on the other hand, is always in trouble due to his rebellious nature and frequently spends a lot of nights in an isolation cell the Brickmans call “the quiet room,” where the evil DiMarco disciplines with a whip, and sometimes worse. A young Native American they call Mose is the third member of this friendship. Mose’s traumatic life began at an early age when his tongue was cut, leaving him unable to speak.
One day, while the three of them are performing hard labor on a nearby work farm, they are swept away by the kindly Cora Frost, who has arranged for their daytime work to be transferred over to her. A short time later Cora has made preparations to take them in for the summer. Just as the boys are feeling like maybe something good is finally happening in their lives, a tornado rolls through Cora’s farm and kills her, orphaning her young daughter, Emmy. Odie and Albert’s hope is lost. The brutal headmistress Mrs. Brickman takes in Emmy, which is intolerable for the boys, who are concerned about Emmy’s welfare in Mrs Brickman’s home. One night, while out of the dormitory, they are caught out by DiMarco, and in a struggle he is accidentally killed by Odie. Now Odie, Albert and Mose are on the run, but they refuse to leave Emmy behind with the headmistress, so they kidnap Emmy. An odd girl who has a gift for not only sometimes being able to look into the future, but somehow even affecting the future, she seems to be waiting on them when they show up to take her with them.
On the run from the Brickmans and the law, the four take to the river for their escape. They are a tight group of four children who learn about their strengths and weaknesses as they are forced into an early maturity. Many adventures await them on the river, good and bad. It seems that Krueger is using the twists and turns of the river as a vehicle for the twists and turns their lives will collectively and individually take on their journey. What Odie comes to realize is that these events test their friendship, ultimately pulling them in different directions as they all find new life following the river.
Those who enjoy coming-of-age stories and the bonds of youthful friendship should put this book on their reading list. Historical fiction and theology from the Great Depression, as well the twists and turns and the “I didn’t see that coming” sensation, all combine to create time well-spent with “This Tender Land.”