This Tender Land a Masterful Mash of Twain, Dickens, and Others

This Tender Land (September 3, 2019)
By William Kent Kruege
Atria/Simon and Schuster, 464 pages.

Did you ever notice how works of fiction riff off of Huckleberry Finn? Aside from the obvious–Huckleberry Finn might be the elusive Great American novel–it's because the tale is part of Western culture's DNA. It goes back to Homer's Odyssey and its parameters probably predate him.

William Kent Kruege acknowledges his debt to Homer and Twain, as well as to Charles Dickens, Sinclair Lewis, and select slices of American history. He set out to write a Huck Finn-like yarn set during the 1930s but as all good writers do, he allowed his characters to take him to other places, hence there's a bit of Steinbeck in the mix as well. On the surface, This Tender Land is like a hybridized fruit grafted onto budwood, but it becomes something richer and more delicious.

Dickens is echoed early in This Tender Land. We enter the Lincoln Indian Training School, located along Minnesota's (fictional) Gilead River. The tyrannical husband/wife team of Clyde and Thelma Brickman run the school, the latter so nasty the children have dubbed her the "Black Witch." In theory Lincoln is a school for Native American children–tens of thousands of whom were ripped from their homes from the late 1800s into the mid-1900s and forced to assimilate to white ways–though orphaned and destitute white children also ended up at Lincoln. Think Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby and you're on the right track. Children are routinely sent to a solitary confinement, deprived of meals, beaten by cruel flunky DiMarco, forced to do hard labor, and some suffer even worse fates. The Black Witch is the bête noire of our narrator, Odie (as in Odysseus!) O'Banion, our 12-year-old narrator with talents for mischief, bad luck, storytelling, and playing the harmonica.

Odie is unlike his 16-year-old brother Albert, a mechanical genius, a crackerjack student, and a perceived goody two-shoes. Were it not for Albert and a kindly German groundskeeper named Herman Volz, Odie and his friend Moses Washington–a full-blooded Sioux whose tongue was cut out when he was very young–would suffer even harsher blows. Push comes to shove when a new Indian boy disappears and a tornado kills sympathetic teacher Cora Frost, thereby making her 6-year-old daughter Emmy an orphan that the Black Witch hopes to discipline and adopt.

The Twain part of the novel begins when Odie, Albert, Moses, and Emmy push a canoe into the Gilead with the vague notion of paddling to where it joins the Minnesota River, then onto its confluence with the Mississippi for a southward journey to St. Louis where, last they heard, the O'Banions' Aunt Julia lived. That's about a thousand miles and it's 1932, the cruelest year of the Great Depression. Although huge numbers of Americans are on the road–which provides some cover for peripatetic orphans–it's still a tall order for four minors. They have some money and papers from a safe, courtesy of some resourceful blackmail on Odie's part, but desperate times also means there are lots of equally desperate people on the road, including the Brickmans and their henchmen who are hell-bent on reclaiming Emmy. Huck and Jim faced all manner of perils as they floated down the Mississippi and so will our intrepid band of four. Like Huck, Odie is resourceful in amoral ways that sometimes make him a saint though he feels himself a bad luck sinner. Also like Huck, our "vagabonds," as Odie dubs them, encounter others with outwardly ambiguous morals: a farmer named Jack; a native man named Forrest; denizens of hobo camps; the Scofield family, who are Minnesota's answer to busted Okies (think Grapes of Wrath); and Aunt Julia. It is to Kruege's credit that he keeps us off balance, which is to say that many of the book's characters are as they appear to be, yet nothing at all as we expected.

Evil stalks the land, hand-in-hand with poverty. Who does one trust, if anyone? Can one linger in St. Paul, where Gertie Hellmann runs the Jewish equivalent of a soup mission? Do you cast your lot with Sister Eve and her traveling evangelism show? Kruege introduces spirituality into the book, but it too is malleable. Odie believes in the Tornado God, an Old Testament wrathful being, but Moses has a Native epiphany when passing through Mankato* and signs his "true" name: Amdacha (Broken in Pieces). Sister Eve is modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson and Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, but maybe she's neither of these. Emmy has "fits" that may or may not be life-changing visions. Perhaps Kruege is taking us down a vaguely pantheistic path. In Odie's later year recollections he remarks that there is no single road to redemption and compares time and the universe to a river that might be God. River, Wakan Tanka, Jehovah… all the same?

What an enjoyable book! It's the kind that deprives you of sleep because you care so much about its characters that you just need to know what happens to them. It helps that Kruege's prose is eloquent as well as compelling. To introduce a small critique, the book's concluding chapters and postscript feel forced and overly tidy in the way that many rolling end-of-movie codas feel abrupt. Some might also read the book's religious ideals as New Age esotericism. (I'm still musing over that.) But the takeaway point is that in the hands of a skilled writer, The Odyssey is truly a timeless tale.

Rob Weir

* Mankato was the site of the largest single-day execution in American history. Thirty-eight Sioux were hanged on Christmas Day in 1862, allegedly for taking part in the Dakota War Sioux uprising. Many of them likely had no part in the war. The president refused to pardon them. His name was Abraham Lincoln!

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