Wednesday, July 01, 2020

This Tender Land - William Kent Krueger

By the time I was about one-third of the way through This Tender Land, William Kent Krueger’s Depression era coming-of-age saga, I started thinking that the novel reads a lot like what I imagine a Charles Dickens version of Huckleberry Finn would read like. Children traveling downriver on a raft, one of the travelers being an eye-catcher because of his race, all of them on the run because they are tired of being so badly mistreated by those in whose care they find themselves…it all makes you think of the Twain book. Then there are all the eccentric characters who pop in and out of the story, very Dickens like, as the children make their way toward St. Louis, some characters threatening, others not, but all of them memorable. And even more Dickens-like, a main theme of the book is the everlasting exploitation of the working class by the factory owners and others they depend on for the jobs that feed their families.

 

So imagine my delight when I spotted these bits from the “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel this morning:

 

            “When I began to consider the story I wanted to write, which, quite honestly, I envisioned as an update of Huckleberry Finn, the Great Depression appealed to me as the perfect, challenging setting.”

 

            …

 

            “I love the works of Charles Dickens, and in part my decision to open This Tender Land in a fictional institution called the Lincoln Indian Training School was a nod to his powerful novels of social inequity.”

 

The story begins in 1932 at a Minnesota boarding school called the Lincoln Indian Training School. The school’s student population is comprised of young Indian boys and girls, most of them having been removed from their parents by force, who are at the school to be educated in the ways of the dominant white society that surrounds them. Their native clothing is taken from them, their hair is cut in the white fashion, and all their personal belongings are confiscated. It is forbidden that the children speak their native language even among themselves, and their labor is often provided free of charge to local farmers willing to “donate” funds to the school. Worst of all, the boys and girls are often the victims of physical and sexual abuse at the hands of teachers and disciplinarians.

 

William Kent Krueger
Strangely enough, there are also two white boys in the school, two orphaned brothers who were taken in at Lincoln because the state orphanages supposedly had no room for the boys due to the depression. Odie, some four years younger than his brother, Albert, is a rebellious kid who is always in trouble with the Superintendent’s wife, a woman determined to break the boy’s spirit no matter what it takes. But that, as “the Black Witch” will learn the hard way, is not going to be easy no matter how much of her black heart she pours into the effort. Odie and Albert would rather be just about anywhere but the Lincoln school, but they have seen how few runaways escape for good - and how harshly the ones who don’t escape the Black Witch’s clutches are punished when she gets her hands back on them. Anyway, where would they go even if they made a break for it?

 

But then it happens.

 

One night, in the act of defending himself, Odie is forced to commit a crime so serious that he fears for his life. The brothers need to run for their lives, and they need to do it right now – but it all gets complicated when their best friend, a mute Indian boy, decides to join them in flight and a six-year-old girl begs to come along. All the “Four Vagabonds” want to do now is make it down river from Minnesota to St. Louis in their little canoe.

 

Bottom Line: Krueger doesn’t break a lot of new ground in This Tender Land, so readers may feel that they’ve read it all before. In the tradition of Twain and Dickens, the author depends heavily on coincidence and luck to move his runaways steadily toward St. Louis, but that allows the coming and going of numerous characters caught up in the life and death struggle faced by so many during the Great Depression. Odie and his fellow travelers learn all about life in their few weeks on the river, especially about what constitutes a real family.

8 comments:

  1. I've read a couple books by this author and enjoyed them. I'd like to try this one maybe somedays when our libraries reopen to the public.

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    1. This was my first Krueger book, Diane. Based on the high ratings, I suppose I was a little disappointed but the man is definitely a good writer and I'm interested in trying others of his now.

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  2. I like that he drew on both Twain and Dickens for his inspiration. :)

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    1. Me, too. And that combination really works well in telling a tale as dark as this one is at times. I suspect this one is not like his other books in tone, but I haven't read the others.

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  3. This is the author of the Cork O'Connor books set in Minnesota? I don't know why but I thought you'd read a bunch of those. I read the first and plan to read more but am not sure about this. Oddly enough I was only talking to my grandson about Huck Finn today. A bit stunned to discover he hadn't heard of Mark Twain or Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. Such is the state of British education these days.

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    1. It is, indeed, the same man, Cath. This is my first experience with Krueger's work, but I'm hoping to try others at some point later this year.

      Don't feel too bad about the state of British education. Most American children would be hard pressed to name a British author at all these days, even Dickens. All kids want to read these days is the usual trash they find on the internet.

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  4. I've only read Iron Lake, and at the time, I intended to read more by Kreuger. Thanks for the reminder!

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    1. His is one of those names I've notice for years, I suppose because it's one of those three-name things, but this is the first book of his I've read. I see that he's a good writer even though this particular book didn't excite me all that much, so I'll be reading more of him, too.

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