Books & Literature

Book Review: This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger

HISTORICAL FICTION: A magnificent novel about four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression.

A grand adventure of four kids, one canoe, and a thought-provoking story of the generosity found during the Great Depression.

Down the Gilead River, a canoe packed with four children glides. Where they are headed, none of them are quite sure. 

Fleeing from crimes they have just committed at their Native American boarding school, brothers Odie and Albert O’Banion, as well as their friends, Mose and Emmy, are on an adventure that will alter their lives forever. They leave behind the evil superintendent nicknamed the Black Witch and the horrible quiet rooms for “badly behaved” children. 

The spiteful Black Witch is on a mission to bring the children back to the school and there will be hell to pay for the trouble they have caused her. With a price on their heads, the kids learn who they can trust and who will sell them out for a quick buck. Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy cross paths with a wide array of people along the river, from alcoholics to an angel of God. Some they meet are just plain greedy while most are generous people who have nothing but hope to give.   

This Tender Land portrays the glum, poverty-stricken land of Minnesota in the 1930s where farms were foreclosed, unemployment was high, and families were leaving their homes in the hope of something better. 

Along the way, Odie meets the Schofield family, whose car broke down and left them stranded at a Hooverville, a shantytown for people down on their luck during the Great Depression. Even though the Schofields don’t have two pennies to rub together, they provide Odie with coffee and porridge because he plays them a song on his harmonica. The Schofield family’s generosity is a heartwarming reminder that there are generous people in the world despite hard financial times. 

Though the author, William Kent Krueger, could not have possibly foreseen the events of 2020 while writing This Tender Land, the theme of Native American mistreatment leaves readers with a lot to unpack in the context of this year’s Black Lives Matter movement. 

Firstly, it is important to acknowledge the term “Indian” used throughout this novel is an improper name used for the indigenous people of North America. While not acceptable now, the language Krueger used in the book would have been factually correct for that time. 

Krueger gives readers a lot to ponder with the character Mose, the only Native American in the group of four children, who grotesquely had his tongue cut out as a child. 

Mose goes off on his own and comes back with knowledge of his people, the Sioux tribe. He tells Odie, Albert, and Emmy the stories he has learned about the unfair killings of his people and the suffering they have endured for years. His friends feel remorseful for what has occurred, but they don’t know how to comfort Mose and an awkwardness lingers between them.

This Tender Land is a fantastic book to catapult discussions about injustices that have occurred to indigenous people, especially while the Black Lives Matter movement is still fresh in our minds. There are plenty of thought-provoking points to pull apart, such as would the book be different if Mose still had his tongue? Or how would the story go if Mose was the main character instead of Odie, a descendant of Irish ancestry? This book could also be used to discuss how we can respectfully make amends and move forward together with indigenous people in a fair and equal way.  

After all the enlightening content, Krueger throws a lifeline to save readers from spiraling into the oblivion of their thoughts by summarising the lives of Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy in an epilogue. We learn so much about the personal lives of the children during their time on the river that it would be a shame not to find out how everything turns out in the end. Squandering any hope of a post-canoe sequel, the author ties the crew’s stories up in a nice, neat bow and sends the reader on their way. 

Reviewed by Alessa Young

Distributed by: Simon & Schuster
Released: December 2019
RRP: $29.99

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