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From the publisher:
A magnificent novel about four orphans on a life-changing odyssey during the Great Depression, from the New York Times bestselling author of Ordinary Grace.
1932, Minnesota—the Lincoln School is a pitiless place where hundreds of Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to an orphan named Odie O’Banion, a lively boy whose exploits earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Forced to flee, he and his brother Albert, their best friend Mose, and a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi and a place to call their own.
Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphans will journey into the unknown and cross paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds. With the feel of a modern classic, This Tender Land is an enthralling, big-hearted epic that shows how the magnificent American landscape connects us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole.
“If you liked Where the Crawdads Sing, you’ll love This Tender Land…This story is as big-hearted as they come.” —Parade
While Kruger is best known for his Cork O’Connor mystery series, he probably received the most accolades (and gained a ton of new readers) with his extraordinary book, Ordinary Grace. This new book was pitched to me as another Ordinary Grace, so I wondered, can lightning strike twice? Apparently it can.
The writing is simply superb. The characters are unforgettable, and the setting is rich and evocative. I have seen this book described as an updated Huckleberry Finn, and that is an apt comparison, as is its comparison to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Homer’s Odyssey. These are some heady correlations, and Kruger’s book easily stands up to them.
Four kids run away from the school where they have been, for lack of a better word, horribly mistreated.They jump into a canoe and head out on the Gilead River. The Gilead feeds into the great Mississippi, and that’s where these children are headed, hoping to reach St. Louis and the possibility of family, where two of them, the brothers, are from.
There are crimes committed along the way, starting with the “kidnapping” of Emmy, a young orphaned girl who has been adopted by the heinous owners of the school. But is it kidnapping is she wants to leave? It is her choice to run away, but this is right on the heels of the Lindburgh baby kidnapping and no one is asking those questions. These children, like many during the depression, grow up way too fast.
There are some major themes at play here, starting with the grand adventure on the river. This is an epic odyssey, often chaotic, and at times, spiritual. But other themes are also important, like the deplorable mistreatment of Native Americans in this country, and much of the history revealed here was completely new to me. Another major theme is that of family, how that is defined, and what it means. It is also a coming of age story for these runaways, and the book is narrated by the adult Odie so it is told with some perspective.
It is a story that immediately grabs the reader and doesn’t let go until the last page is turned. There is resolution, and redemption. Book clubs will love it; there is a deep, rich reservoir worthy of discussion. It is an excellent read, sure to make my best books of the year list. Don’t miss it.
9/19 Stacy Alesi, AKA the BookBitch™
THIS TENDER LAND by William Kent Kruger. Atria Books (September 3, 2019). ISBN 978-1476749297. 464p.