by Grant Cousineau
“Let me tell you something, boy. Whatever you think you’re not capable of doing, the minute you think it, the moment it enters your mind, just in the imagining, it’s already been done. Only a matter of time before your hands follow through.”
What do we do when we have no home, no bloodline family, nor a dime to live on?
These questions hang heavy in previous UntitledTown author William Kent Krueger’s latest novel, This Tender Land, as a band of children escape an austere boarding school on canoe in the summer of 1932.
It takes place a year before the United States even begins to free itself from the Great Depression. Farmers are losing their land left and right. Bank men must either evict these families or risk losing their jobs. Tens of thousands are displaced into shantytowns and slums. And in a darker chapter of American history, white men forcibly take thousands of Native American children from their parents and send them to boarding schools to “kill the Indian in [them], and save the man.”
Orphaned Odysseus “Odie” Obanion and his brother, Albert, are placed in one of these schools, the Lincoln Indian Training School, as the only two non-Indian students. The schoolmaster’s wife, Mrs. Thelma Brickman, aka “the Black Witch,” runs a strict regime where children are often whipped by punishment-enforcer Vincent DiMarco or sent to the quiet room. Odie spends so much time in this dank cell that he names his cellmate (a rat) Faria, for the prisoner in The Count of Monte Cristo.
Odie’s gotten good a putting up with misery while Albert survives on being servile. But when God sends down a tornado, it sets off a series of events that give the O’Banions little choice but to run away. They steal a canoe and leave with fellow student Mose Washington, an orphaned and tongue-less Sioux student, and Emmy, the sweet and impressionable daughter of the homemaking teacher.
The four spend most of that summer on the lam in this Huckleberry Finn adventure as the Black Witch hunts them down. Odie and Albert have family in Saint Louis, and if they can find their way there, they just might get another chance at life.
“Loss comes in every moment. Second by second our lives are stolen from us. What is past will never come again.”
Despite this premise, the title is accurate. This is very much a tender book. It’s about love and honor, family and loss. But it’s also a harrowing tale of survival as the four face the real dangers of hunger, poverty, and worse. It’s as much a story of finding home as it is of theft, blackmail, torture, kidnapping, and death.And yet, Kreuger believes in the power of hope. These orphans have little left in the world to hold onto, but they believe in the possibility of a home, a family, and a better future in an era where hope is in limited supply.
William Kent Kreuger is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Ordinary Grace. He spoke at UntitledTown in 2019 and is a proud member of the UntitledTown family. Click here to order his latest book, This Tender Land.