Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Review: This Tender Land

From This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger:
Open quote The tale I'm going to tell is of a summer long ago. Of killing and kidnapping and children pursued by demons of a thousand names. There will be courage in this story and cowardice. There will be love and betrayal. And, of course, there will be hope. In the end, isn't that what every good story is about?"
This Tender Land: Stories
"This Tender Land" is the 2020 selection for "Richardson Reads One Book."

Grade: A-

Krueger lays out his entire novel in that excerpt from the prologue above. The plot is straightforward. Four children escape from a cruel orphanage in southwestern Minnesota in 1932, during the Great Depression, and set out in a canoe on a grand adventure with a goal of reaching a vaguely remembered home in St. Louis.

There's nothing subtle here. The epigraph is from "The Odyssey" by Homer. The main character, a twelve year old boy, is named Odie, short for Odysseus. One villain he has to deal with is called One Eyed Jack (think cyclops). The alias Odie adopts to hide his identity is "Buck" (rhymes with "Huck"). Three traveling companions help our hero on his quest to find his way back "home" (St. Louis is the stand-in for Kansas). The evil woman who runs the orphanage is known as the "Black Witch" (think Wicked Witch of the West). A tornado puts in motion Odie's adventure. There's no dog Toto, so that's different.

The ups and downs the orphans face check all the boxes for a rollicking good adventure: tornado (check), kidnapping (check), guns (check), snake bite (check), first love (check), a skeleton (check), and plenty of campfires and harmonica music (check). The settings for these adventures are like chapters in a social history of the Great Depression: a "Hooverville," food lines, a traveling religious revival, riding the rails in empty box cars.

If the plot and characters are recycled staples of American literature, what earns the novel my generous grade? Normally, the grade I give a book is based on how much I enjoyed it. Think of it like I'm trying to program Amazon to make better recommendations for books I might like. This novel is an exception. The A- is definitely influenced by how much I think a 13 year-old boy might like it. I think he'd love it. At least I think I would have. But there's enough else in it for an old man like me to like it, too.

What makes the subject matter a particularly rich vein to mine for both adolescents and adults is the role religion plays. As the novel opens, young Odie's religion is summarized by "GOD IS A TORNADO." He destroys all that Odie holds near and dear. When taught that the Lord is like a shepherd, his older brother "whispered, 'Listen, Odie, what does a shepherd eat?' I didn't know where he was going with that, so I didn't reply. 'His flock,' Albert told me. 'One by one.'" In his adventures, Odie encounters a Native American who sees God "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." He meets Sister Eve who runs a traveling religious revival and has her own view of who and what God is. Odie listens and learns and synthesizes his own unique view of religion. His spiritual journey ought to have something for everyone to ponder. But this is not primarily a religious book.

Besides Mark Twain's "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and Homer's "Odyssey", another book this reminds me of is "The Boxcar Children" by Gertrude Chandler Warner. Published in 1924, it tells the story of the adventures of four orphaned children living in the home they create for themselves in an empty boxcar in the woods. Targeted at grade school readers, that novel made an indelible impression on me at that age. "This Tender Land" is aimed at slightly older readers but I believe it could have just as strong an impression on them (and let's admit it, adults too).

"This Tender Land" is available in hardcover and eBook formats from the Richardson Public Library.

Prior selections for "Richardson Reads One Book":

This review appeared first in "Richardson Living."

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