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.
I am a big fan of science/speculative fiction writer Jo Walton, although I have found her offerings to be somewhat uneven between things I love and things I recognize as worthy while not personally caring for them. I was excited to discover that she had written an alternate history in which Great Britain negotiated its way out of World War II in return for a treaty with Hitler, who proceeded to conquer the European continent while sparing England across the Channel.
I thought Farthing was a new work, possibly designed to address the fascism and bigotry that have been revealing themselves these past few years in America; but after I got into it I discovered it had been published in 2006 and was, in fact, the first of a trilogy, the others being Ha’penny and Half a Crown.
I also found the book disappointing in some respects, but only because I had a particular expectation that it didn’t fulfill. I thought it was a full-on alternate history and would deal more specifically with the details of that world; instead, Walton used post-war Britain allied with Germany as a backdrop for a “locked-door” murder mystery novel reminiscent of Agatha Christie, which is not really what I wanted to read.
The details of the alternate history do matter to the story: Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the aristocrats of the “Farthing set” are gathered for a weekend retreat at the Eversley’s estate. Lucy, daughter of the house, is one of the invited guests, although her new husband, David Kahn, a Jewish banker, is less welcome. Lucy has “thrown herself away” by marrying him, and is tolerated, rather than welcomed, into her old social circle as a consequence. Neither of them really wished to come to the country that weekend, but Lucy’s mother imperiously summoned them, and David felt perhaps she was holding out an olive branch, although Lucy, being more familiar with her mother’s prejudices, knows that can’t be the case.
Soon the two can only wish they had resisted the invitation and stayed in town; Sir James Thirkie, a friend of her parents who is also the person who engineered the historic agreement with Hitler for peace, has been murdered sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning, and some details of the murder look like they have been specifically engineered so it can be blamed on David Kahn.
Fortunately, the Scotland Yard inspector sent down to solve the case is less gullible than are the local police and sees the nature of the set-up; he doesn’t view Kahn as remotely likely in the role of murderer, but if he can’t see his way clear to accusing someone else, Kahn is likely to go down for it, as Jewish scapegoat on the scene. Inspector Carmichael does his level best to come up with a solution, but new details keep getting thrown at him that twist the mystery further this way and that until no one knows how it will end.
Although I recognized and appreciated both the set-up and the writing in Farthing, I felt somewhat dissatisfied after reading it. The mystery itself was not particularly intriguing, and the alternate history aspect left me wanting more world-building. I also wasn’t a big fan of the alternating point of view between first person (Lucy’s journal of the events) and third person (Inspector Carmichael’s investigation), although I did like both characters quite a bit. Character development is one of Walton’s strong suits, and she didn’t fail here, particularly as regards the inspector, whose ulterior motive for refusing to suspect David Kahn enriches the story.
It was strange to read the book from within the throes of the current political climate. I started the book two days before Election Day, and finished it a couple of days afterwards, and I did appreciate how the author asked the reader to consider the consequences of allowing fascist behavior to continue and grow. There is also a familiarity about the plight of the Jews in this book as compared with the history of black people in America; there are all these little bits of discrimination that each by themselves seem fairly innocuous (especially if you are not the party who is targeted by them) but taken collectively they are seen to intentionally omit, push out, reject, and deny full personhood.
I don’t think I am sufficiently enamored of this book to pursue reading the other two; but if you are a person who enjoys Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers mysteries and also appreciates good character development, witty dialogue, and an unexpected background for all of that, you might want to check out this trilogy.
My preference for Walton’s alternate history oeuvre is her three-book series that begins with The Just City. The Thessaly trilogy is based on the idea that the goddess Pallas Athene, curious as to its outcome, creates a society designed to follow the tenets of Plato’s Republic. She extracts 100 caregivers and 10,000 babies from various points in history (past, present, and future), puts them together on an island located in the distant past, and instructs the adults to raise the children strictly according to Plato to be their “best selves.” A few years into the experiment, she kidnaps and throws Sokrates into the mix, and then things get interesting.
I decided to take a break from my pile of new books and re-read something I had previously enjoyed, written by Philippa Gregory.
I have to confess that most of her historical fiction featuring the Tudors has bored me silly for some reason—I have tried two different ones, and they just didn’t spark to life for me, despite being obsessed with this period of history and these characters back in my teen years. But the series I had in mind predated all of her “hits” and in fact was the first thing she ever wrote: The Wideacre trilogy, consisting of Wideacre, The Favored Child, and Meridon.
Together, they are the story of one small but perfect estate in Sussex—Wideacre—and the family who had title to and hold over it—the Laceys—in the time period of Georgian England. The trilogy spans three generations and marks massive changes in England, in the land, and in the family, which was steered badly astray by the obsession of one woman—Beatrice Lacey—for the land on which she grew up and which she is determined to have for her own, laws and rights of primogeniture notwithstanding. Her longing for the possession and control of Wideacre makes Scarlet O’Hara’s passion for Tara look like a tepid fancy.
I have actually read the third book, Meridon, several times, because it has elements I like: Travelers, a circus, horses, and a stubborn, suspicious, untrusting lost girl protagonist who immediately captured my imagination. But I decided to return to the first book instead, to refresh my memory of why I liked the entire trilogy so much.
After having finished Wideacre for a second time, I don’t think I will read through the subsequent books. Although I enjoyed it, it also made me a little weary, on two counts, the first being that it is 556 pages long, and the second that the protagonist got to me this time in a particular way that I think I didn’t entirely take in the first time through.
The thing I connected with most powerfully with the first read was the scene-setting. Wideacre is a palpable and powerful character in this book, as much as any of the humans depicted, and the descriptions and varieties of its beauty made me long to have the experiences Beatrice Lacey had, of riding the path up to the Downs to see the greater vista of the estate from their hilltops, of smelling the sweet scents of hay and wild poppies in the fields, of lying in a hollow in the shady woods or dangling my feet in the Fenny river. In that first read,
I could almost understand Beatrice’s obsession for her surroundings—we have all of us had some moment in our lives when our passions were invoked by a particular setting and we longed to be a part of it forever. But with my second read, I saw the sickness the single-minded pursuit of this one thing above all others brought with it to her life and the lives of all around her, despoiling the beauty she could have enjoyed freely, had she let go the need to possess it. This story is not for the squeamish—there are truly dark passages depicting the twisted relationships Beatrice creates to try to manipulate her way into the Squire’s role.
What struck me, however, with this re-read was a relevant passage that I reached almost at the end of the book. Beatrice has mortgaged the estate up to its eyebrows in order to break the entail and gift it to her heirs, and in doing so has bankrupted it, with the result that the people who live on her land, who were once important to her because they were part of her world, are now out in the cold while she rakes in every penny for herself. She is having a conversation with her tender-hearted and clear-eyed sister-in-law, who sees how she has wrecked the relationship with the cottagers and has challenged her on it. Beatrice tries to excuse her actions by saying that this is the new way of farming in England, that the investors must needs make a profit from the money they have provided. Celia’s response hit me right between the eyes.
“All of the people who write about the need for a man to have a profit are rich people. All they wish to prove is that their profits are justified. They will not accept the answer which is there before their eyes: that there is no justification.
“Why should the man who invests his money have his profit guaranteed, while the man who invests his labour, even his life, has no guaranteed wage?” she said. “And why should the man who has money to invest earn so very much more with his capital than a man could earn working at the very top of his strength, all day? If they were both to be rewarded equally, then after the debts had been paid and the new equipment bought, miners would live in houses and eat the food of the mine owners. And they clearly do not. They live like animals in dirt and squalor and they starve, while the mine owners live like princes in houses far away from the ugly mines.
“It is as bad here,” she said baldly. “The labourers work all day and earn less than a shilling. I do not work at all and yet I have an allowance of two hundred pounds a quarter. I have taken no risks with capital. I replace no machinery. I am paid simply because I am a member of the Quality and we are all wealthy. There is no justice in that, Beatrice. There is no logic. It is not even a very efficient way
“Celia,” [Beatrice] said again, “you simply do not understand. The less we pay the labourers the more profit we make. Every landowner wants to make as much profit as possible. Every landowner, every merchant, every businessman, tries to pay as little as possible to his workers.”
[And then Beatrice taunts Celia about her allowance and her dowry lands, and Celia reveals that she has been spending all her allowance on food and clothes for the village.]
“When the landlords are against the tenants as you are, Beatrice,” Celia said dully, “and when the employers have decided to pay the least they can, charity has no chance. All we are doing is prolonging the pain of people who are dying of want.”
“It is an ugly world you and your political economists defend, Beatrice. We all know it should be different and yet you will not do it. You and all the rich people. It is an ugly world you are building.”
Reading this in a time when the United States government is handing out windfalls right and left to big business—banks, airlines—while refusing to supplement all those out of work due to the pandemic whose severity has been exacerbated by its negligence; reading this when, in the face of massive unemployment across our nation, the CEOs of the biggest companies are adding millions or billions a day to their personal fortunes, on which they pay no taxes and for which they apparently suffer not a moment’s guilt, showed me the depth and breadth of the evil that has overwhelmed our land. Yes, I am calling it evil, for I can think of no other word to describe the potential effect of the Republicans finally, after all these years of aspiring, to actually have the cancellation of Social Security and Medicare within their grasp, to surrender our national parks to oil drillers, to decimate our school systems, to pack our courts with toadies, to perpetuate lies, calumny and outright treason to keep a man in office who will facilitate their soulless predations, and then make up reasons why we should see it as a good thing.
I think my impulse to read this book at this time brought me to a place I needed to go, and this is also why I don’t intend to re-read the other two books, although they are gripping stories and worth your consideration. I’m afraid they will just make me too sad. I don’t bring politics to this blog, normally, but these are not normal times. If you have any empathy in your heart for the less fortunate who are falling through the widening cracks in this version of our America, please use your voice and your vote to change things to a world where we can all do better, together.
One thing you have to do as a reader, if you are not to be eternally disgruntled with life, is to try not to have outsize expectations of authors. That’s tough sometimes, particularly if an author has never disappointed you with a single one of her books until the one you are reading right now, which you cannot believe came from the same person’s formerly fertile brain. Sometimes it’s not a matter of your icon having written a bad book, simply that she has written one that doesn’t resonate with you, or is directed to a different age group than you expected, or was written earlier in her career before she developed the amazing story-telling abilities that hooked you later on.
There are several authors I have run across who have surprised me in this way: One of them is Elizabeth George, whose masterful mysteries featuring the unlikely detective team of Thomas Lynley, son of the peerage, and Barbara Havers, woman of the people, cause me much excitement whenever they emerge. When I found out she was also trying her hand at young adult books, I was excited to see what she would produce, particularly because, as a teen librarian, I was always looking for a gifted “new” author to pitch to my YA book clubs. I read the first one the minute it hit the library shelf, and was both amazed and dismayed; where was the intricate plotting of her adult mysteries? This pseudo-paranormal mish-mash couldn’t be a product of the same sharp, incisive wit! I’m told that they did improve as she wrote more of them, but I never found out, I stopped at number one. I am still a dedicated fan of Lynley/Havers, and steadfastly ignore the rest.
Another author where the contrast isn’t so wide but nonetheless exists is V. E. (Victoria) Schwab. Her book Vicious is among my top 10 favorite books of all time, and I tout her Shades of Magic series to all and sundry, from 12-year-olds to the elderly. But her two series for young adults—The Archived and Monsters of Verity—left me feeling not exactly disappointed but certainly underwhelmed. I did enjoy the first of her Cassidy Blake books (City of Ghosts) for slightly younger readers, and I am looking forward to reading her new, long-awaited The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which Schwab has spent 10 years bringing forth and of which she says, “I’ve put my heart and soul, my teeth and blood and bones into this one.” I’m really hoping that it falls into the “I want a copy so I can reread it multiple times” category and not into the “I’m wishing I had read something else this weekend” pile.
Anyway…that’s a long preface to say that I have experienced something similar this week with the book I chose. A few years back I read Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, an historical fiction novel of World War II, set in Nazi-occupied France, with an American and a British protagonist, both women, one a pilot and the other a spy. To say the book captured my imagination as thoroughly as one of its protagonists is held hostage by the Germans is an understatement. I read it straight through in one sitting, and wept profusely several times, the first occasion on which a book has caused tears since I was a teenager. The story, and the specific way it was recounted, simply bowled me over, and I actually couldn’t read anything else for a couple of days while I thought about and recovered from the book.
I remember, when I read it, thinking, “I do not understand why this has been marketed and sold as a YA book. Will some teens love this book? Definitely. Is it a teen book? Not in the least.” I followed up by telling blog readers, “I find myself sad that [CNV] has been marginalized in any way from finding its full audience, because this book deserves to be widely read. Adults out there, recommend this to your teens, and then read it yourselves, and give it to your mother and your friends and to strangers on the bus.”
As you can imagine, this set up high expectations for all the rest of Wein’s oeuvre, and when I saw one of them for a discounted price from bookoutlet.com, I snapped it up and prepared to be wowed.
The book is The Pearl Thief, and it is as different as night and day or, to be specifically British about it, as chalk and cheese, to her previous work, even though its protagonist is one of the women from CNV, at age 15. And it is definitely written for a younger teenage audience. Before you expect me to pan it, let me say that it was a completely enjoyable read. But I was unconsciously expecting a level of drama and pathos, based on Code Name Verity, that simply didn’t manifest in this story.
If I hadn’t had specific expectations of this author, I still think I would have been intrigued by the book and its subject matter. It takes place in Scotland in 1938, and drops in at the end of an era for one family whose “perfect little Scottish estate, with a ruined castle and a baronial manor, nestled in woodland just where the River Fearn meets the River Tay” will no longer belong to the family, now that the death of Julia Beaufort-Stuart’s grandfather has triggered a reckoning. Lord Streathfern did all he could to save the house and the land for his heirs, but the combination of a lingering illness and a downturn in the economy made it necessary to sell up to a boys’ school, and the family are now inhabiting a small section of the house while the school administrators oversee the renovations and conversions necessary to turn it into the institution it will become. This will be Julie’s last summer on her grandfather’s land, with her brothers, her mother and grandmother, and the few servants left, and then they will move back to their own Craig Castle near Aberdeen, taking her widowed grandmother with them.
By broad contrast with Julie’s sheltered and privileged upbringing, the other vital characters in this story are the two teenagers, Ellen and Euan, in a family of Travelers who have spent seasons on Streathfern land time out of mind, helping harvest “tatties,” beating the bushes and collecting the downed birds during shooting holidays and, in between, collecting tin from the townsfolk and weaving baskets from the withies in the marshy land near the river. This land was ceded to them by right for the past 300 years in exchange for a small fortune in river pearls (which play a vital role in the story), but now the changing fortunes of the laird will mean change for them all.
As the story begins, Julie has just arrived home for the summer three days before she is expected. When no one is around up at the house, she changes out of her traveling outfit into a T-shirt and an old kilt and goes out hiking around the estate, reacquainting herself with her favorite haunts. One moment she is lying on the bank of the river with one arm immersed, tickling for trout in the deep, cold water, and the next she is awaking in a hospital ward with a splitting headache from a lump on her head, being treated with disrespect and disdain as the “tinker” girl they believe her to be. She discovers that she was found, unconscious, on a path in the woods, and brought into the hospital by two of the Travelers; once her mistaken identity is resolved, her mother is called, and she returns home, feeling battered and wondering about how it all happened.
It soon becomes clear that the thump on her head was no accident, and that it is probably directly related to a missing employee of the estate, who disappeared on the same day she landed in the hospital. Along with the two travelers, Euan and Ellen, she seeks out the reason why anyone would have sought to hurt her or the missing man and, in the process, must stand up for her Traveller friends as local bias against them starts framing Euan up for murder.
This book is a delightful combination of murder mystery, coming of age story, and a serious depiction of prejudice, as exhibited by many of the “regular” people towards the Travelers they hold in suspicion and distrust for their alternate lifestyle. Although it wasn’t quite what I expected in terms of drama and emotional engagement, it surprised me (in a good way) with its exposition of the themes Wein did choose to explore. I think adults could enjoy the book, but it is definitely written with teens in mind, and is one of those books one could recommend that promotes empathy to its young readers. The book would be appropriate for anyone 12 and up, although probably a lower age of 14 would find it more relateable.
This review is also to say, placing expectations on your favorite authors and holding them to some rigid ideal may make you miss out on books they wrote that are different but nonetheless effective and providing of considerable enjoyment.
ADDENDUM: Today (according to a post on Facebook) is National Book Lovers Day. I’m not making a special post like for the cats, because EVERY day is book lovers’ day here @TheBookAdept!
Another entry for this occasional feature, looking back to favorite reads…
Louise Marley has written historical fiction, speculative fiction, and science fiction. I have two favorites:
The Glass Harmonica has two protagonists in two different time periods, both of whom play the instrument (based on glass cups) invented by Benjamin Franklin (one in 1761 right after Franklin invented it, and one who is a classical musician in 2018), and it is a lovely combination of historical fiction and ghost story.
The Terrorists of Irustan is set in the future on another planet, giving it a science fiction classification, but the society on Irustan mirrors the claustrophobic restrictions imposed on women in conservative religious middle eastern countries today. The main character, Zahra, is a medicant and a subversive, hiding feminist heroism behind her silk veil, and her co-conspirator, Jing-Li, is perpetuating a fraud that could mean death were it discovered. The story is gripping, real, and relevant, a Handmaid’s Tale sort of dystopia.
NEW FEATURE: I have so many years of eclectic reading in my past that several friends have suggested I go back and dredge up the memory of books that bowled me over when I read them first, and briefly share them here. I agreed that the chance to revisit some old favorites would be a pleasure. Also, in the context of giving good readers’ advisory services in the library, the truth is that the new books at the top of the bestseller list are checked out, with multiple (or hundreds of) holds, so it’s good to have backup in an old book that might fulfill the same desires as the new one. So here goes…
M. M. Kaye wrote a series of murder mystery/romances called Death in [fill in the blank], from Berlin to Zanzibar, as well as some straight-up romances set in exotic locales and involving typical male leads such as pirates and slave traders. But one of her books stands out far above the rest: The Far Pavilions. Even though she wrote some of them before and some of them after, I feel like all her other books were rehearsals so she could get everything right in this one.
It’s a long and complicated epic with lots of historical context, and it paints such a vivid picture of India under the British Raj and Britain’s incursions into Afghanistan that you can almost smell the dust and hear the bullets whistling past your ears. The hero and heroine are the products of two separate cultures, and their status as misfits in both societies draws them together as children and reunites them as adults in a poignant love story that plays out against a volatile background of war and empire-building. The book is 958 pages long, and I have read it three times; I’m sure I’ll read it again someday! If you are a fan of historical fiction but are looking for something with a different setting to the ordinary, this book will fulfill those desires.