This Tender Land

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.

Ordinary Grace

9781451645859_p0_v4_s192x300    A coming of age story with power and sentiment, William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace follows the summer of a thirteen year old boy as he reflects on the circumstances that formed his character as an adult.

Frank Drum, and his brother, Jake, romp through the summer days in the Minnesota countryside, jumping into the cool quarry waters, playing ball with their friends, dangling their feet over the railroad trestle, and surreptitiously listening in on adult conversations.  Their carefree summer suddenly turns into drama, when they find a an old Sioux leaning over a dead body below the railroad tracks.  As Frank tells the story, he warns of more deaths to come that summer in the early 1960’s, yet the flavor of the plot and dialogue remains unexpectedly normal as everyone continues with their uneventful lives.

Krueger, the author of the Cork O’Conner series about a former Chicago cop living in the Minnesota woods, is a master of mystery, and he does include three deaths and a murder with red herrings to distract from the real killer, who is eventually revealed.  With a mix of anticipation and tension, Krueger paces the story with the evenness of the boys’ lives as they live through the idyllic summer that forces them to grow up.

Krueger has created a cast of compelling characters (young and old), each in his or her own way searching for something, including the narrator’s father, the town’s Methodist pastor.  Frank’s father,  having changed careers from being a promising trial attorney after he survived the horrors of war, carries the novel’s theme of basic goodness despite the world’s misery and genuinely bad things happening to good people.  But Krueger is never preachy, and his minister’s thoughtful comments seem more philosophical than religious.  Frank and his brother grow up with him as their model, facing life and death with his perspective:

“Loss,” says Frank toward the novel’s end, “once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand … you can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away.”

Despite its moral compass constantly pointing North and its tangential bucolic descriptions of the Minnesota woods in summer, Ordinary Grace is a compelling coming-of-age novel, exploring events propelling its characters from childhood to adulthood.  Although the ending is somewhat predictable, some of the characters’ words will stay with you:

“My heart had simply directed me in a way that my head couldn’t wrap its thinking around…”

“It’s hard to say goodbye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps up upright and connected until the worst is past.”

I found this book on a friend’s book club list for next year.  The author of Ordinary Grace includes a a few topics for book club discussion at the back of the book, but one seems to summarize the book’s intent:

How do small moments help deal with larger-than-life trouble?