William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land channels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Odyssey in an endearing coming of age saga with Dickensian characters who are just as memorable as the heroes from David Copperfield or Oliver Twist. Although the author adds an epilogue explaining how the four main characters finished their lives in old age, I was sorry to see them grow up, and will probably always remember them as the four young “Vagabonds” who escaped the clutches of evil and followed the river on a life-changing adventure during the Depression.
Ten year old Odie, short for Odysseus, a natural storyteller who also plays the harmonica, is the narrator. He bands together with three other orphaned escapees from the Lincoln Indian Training School: Albert, his older brother; Mose, a mute Indian boy who had his tongue cut out; and Emmy, the beautiful curly headed six year old with a talent for changing the future, as they paddle in a canoe from Minnesota’s Gilead River to St. Louis on the Mississippi in search of a home. They meet an array of well meaning characters, including a band of traveling faith healers, a few ornery swindlers and displaced families, but the villain they are constantly trying to escape is the headmistress of the school, a cruel and abusive personification of her nickname, the Black Witch.
Krueger follows these heroic children as they travel through Hoovervilles and shantytowns, farmlands and flooded river flats.They meet hobos and scammers, are imprisoned by a farmer, and befriended by Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon Healing Crusade and Mother Beal, who shares what little food she has.
Like Odysseus, Odie finally makes it to Ithaca, but Kreuger offers a few surprises and a better ending than Homer’s tale. Our hero finds hope and renewed faith in a compelling story of family and friendship. I was sorry to come to the end of the book, and the characters, especially Odie, will stay with me for a while.
If you are looking for a book to discuss in a book club, William Kent Kruger’s This Tender Land offers a wealth of characters and plot lines in an easy to follow narrative.