When I ran across the quote in This Tender Land, by William Kent Krueger, after which the book was named, I thought the reference too slight to justify calling it that. But there are, in fact, many tender and poignant moments in this book to be enjoyed and appreciated, not the least of which is expressed in the beautiful narrative of the natural world through which the characters pass.
I didn’t know what to expect from this story, but my pulse beat a little faster when I saw the description of four children traveling downriver by canoe; ever since having read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a child, I have loved the adventurous nature of travel by water, somewhat in control of your vessel but ultimately subject to the whims of the ever-changing river. And yes, I know that Huck Finn has fallen out of fashion since its reexamination for egregious racism but, despite that, the central narrative of a couple of disadvantaged people at the bottom of the rungs of society encountering others supposedly more elevated along their way but themselves turning out to be the more ethical and compassionate is a powerful theme, repeated in this tale by Krueger.
Odie, 12, and his brother Albert, 16, are the only two white children at one of the notorious “training” schools for Indian children, this one in Minnesota. Albert is stolid and even-tempered, an engineer by talent as well as by nature, but the more volatile Odie is constantly in trouble for one reason or another, and at this school under the reign of Superintendent Brickwood (the Black Witch, as the boys call her), the last thing you want to do is stand out. The brothers have a best friend, Moses, an Indian boy about Albert’s age, whose tongue was cut out when he was too small to remember; due to the brothers’ having had a deaf mother, they are able to teach him American Sign Language and he is thus able to communicate.
The boys survive an existence marked by ragged clothes and and shoes with holes, too little food and too much labor, and constant persecution from the staff of the school by focusing on the good: They have a champion in two of their teachers—Herman Volz and Cora Frost—and Mrs. Frost does her best to ensure they spend carefree time in her company, helping out at her farm and playing with her beloved daughter, six-year-old Emmy, while Volz tries to protect them from the worst of the punishments inflicted upon them by Mrs. Brickwood and her henchman. But disaster comes calling, and the boys decide their only option is to run away from the school. Rather than take to the roads or the railroad—both almost guaranteed routes to recapture—they hit upon the idea of rowing Mrs. Frost’s canoe downstream from the small tributary near her house to a larger river within a few days’ travel, ultimately hooking up with the mighty Mississippi. They also, against their better judgment, take Emmy along with them, knowing that the charge of kidnapping will bring more avid pursuit.
The helpless and downtrodden yet stubbornly optimistic outlook of the main protagonist, Odie, is endearing and captivating. Likewise the natures of his three companions—his brother Albert, a realist with a soft heart; their friend Mose, unspoiled despite the terrible treatment he has received at the hands of multiple offenders; and the small but immensely matter-of-fact Emmy, with her weird fit-induced pronouncements—immediately draw the reader in and engender commitment to their fates.
The four Vagabonds, as Odie calls them in his made-up stories told around multiple campfires, go from bad to worse to better in the course of their journey. Ultimately, each is looking for “home,” whatever that means to them, and each finds a version of this waiting for them, although it may not be what they expected when they set out. This is a beautifully told odyssey of privation (it takes place during the height of the Depression, in 1932) and the powerful bonds of love and friendship that overcome all hardships. The epilogue, of which literary device I am usually not a fan, gives a look at how this significant period in their lives impacted everyone who participated, and brings the journey to a satisfying conclusion, once more along the banks of the Gilead River. I’m so happy I took this trip with the Vagabonds.
Bonus feature: Odie’s talent (other than storytelling) is that of playing the harmonica, and the author mentions a Spotify playlist (This Tender Land, by Jen Hatmaker Book Club) that enables the reader to experience the songs he (and other characters) played in the book, popular in that era and location in history.