Sinking into William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land is to wrap yourself in a warm blanket of smooth prose, toss another log on the fire, and savor the journey of Odie O’Banion.
See? Even the name rolls right along. Say it. Odie O’Banion. It’s a name ready for motion, those two fat O’s—three o’s in all—and the nifty alliteration. And ‘Banion’ isn’t much of a stretch to folk hero Paul Bunyan. In fact, tales of Bunyan began as verbal stories told in lumber camp bunkhouses (source: Wikipedia) and This Tender Land carries that same episodic flavor. It’s told with an easy narrative flow. In addition, Odie is an adept storyteller who is able to conjure tales on the spot to entertain, soothe, or explain.
But this is already over-analysis of a story that asks you to kick back and let it wash over you. Once you tap into Krueger’s easy pace, it might remind you a bit of the heyday of Cinerama or something similar where you knew going in that you were in for a full three hours to forget about yourself. It’s a delicious sensation.
Krueger tells us out of the gate we’re in for a ride. The epigram is from Odyssey and in the prologue our narrator (Odie, short for Odysseus, ahem) looks back over the decades and confesses to his skills as a storyteller while noting the important distinction between entertainer and liar. He also tells us what lies ahead for Odie as he ventures from his closed-in world to the big one out there in Minnesota of 1932.
“Things were different then,” says Odie in the prologue. “Not simpler or better, just different. We didn’t travel the way we do now, and for most folks in Freemont County, Minnesota, the world was limited to the piece of it they could see before the horizon cut off the land. They wouldn’t understood any more than I did that if you kill a man, you are changed forever.”
Wise old O’Banion, with perspective, keeps no secrets in the brisk prologue. There will be killing. There will be miracles. “Open yourself to every possibility,” he tell us, “for there is nothing your heart can imagine that is not so.”
It’s 1932, as mentioned. Hardship. Duress. Misfortune. We’re at the Lincoln Indian Training School, formerly a military outpost. It’s also a place of brutality, led by “the Black Witch,” Thelma Brickman (one of many great Dickensian names). The school is also a place of indoctrination, to get Indian children ready for the white world. School motto: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
Odie O’Banion and his older brother Albert are the only two white boys in the school. They are also orphans and kept in their own oppressive space for the night before heading off during the day to work, in grueling conditions, at a local farm. One of their oppressors is DiMarco, who delivers “strappings” for those caught speaking Indian. There’s a quarry, a cliff, an abyss, and DiMarco with his “long leather strap.” After a scrap, DiMarco plunges to the depths below. (That’s no spoiler; note the prologue excerpt above. And we’re only a fifth of the way into the story.)
Odie escapes with his brother Albert along with a teenage Sioux named Mose, and a young girl named Emmy. Emmy’s mother, a teacher, is killed by a tornado at the school—offering the first of many lessons about the random acts of God. Or nature. Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy are the vagabonds. They are free. Except they need to stay free. Odie, not yet 13, tells himself that he’s been “reborn” thanks to the killing of DiMarco.
They push off in a canoe down the river, which delivers them from one adventure to another, from one harrowing moment to the next strange encounter. They encounter a wild variety of characters from Dust Bowl farmers to ghettoized Jews in St. Paul to Sister Eve of the Sword of Gideon Traveling Crusade. Odie hears an earful of counsel along the way, much of it spiritual. Pluck and savvy help him get back to the river time after time. He’d love to lead his whole scrappy squad of vagabonds all the way to St. Louis, where his Aunt Julia lives, but the going is slow and every trek away from the river in search of food or other resources eats up time, sets them back, or worse. Albert gets in a very bad spot. Odie is forced to make very adult decisions. Recurring themes of identity, family, faith, and hope pepper the tale at every turn.
Odie sees behind Sister Eve’s façade, the fake miracles and fake-dangerous snakes designed to fire up hope among her flock, and Odie learns to use a bit of Sister Eve’s tactics to help his brother. Odie falls for a girl. There’s a town called Hopersville. And Odie searches for the right way forward—and for answers. Who knows best? Which of these strangers can be trusted? Are the authorities on their trail? Is life fair? Will Odie leave his vagabonds and journey off on his own?
A tad fantastic? Sure. What novel with so many references to Homer (Part Four is titled The Odyssey) would not engage in dramatic storytelling—emphasis on story. Homer scholars will have a field day spotting references (One-Eyed Jack/ the Cyclops). With its Huck Finn echoes, The Adventures of Odie O’Banion would have served equally as well as a title. Odie’s journey becomes a kind of anthropological survey of the Depression-era Minnesota Mix Master of races and social classes.
A tad precious? Your mileage may vary, but this should be no surprise. You’ll grasp the flavor of This Tender Land in the first few pages.
Take the ‘i’ out of Odie and you get ‘ode,’ and that’s what this novel is, too—an ode to great American storytelling, an ode to all the big stories that have come before, an ode to the heartland, and an ode to the human spirit. Open yourself, yes, to every possibility.