This Tender LandThis Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
My rating: 5/5 cats
One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

“Maybe it really is like it says in the Bible,” I offered. “God’s a shepherd and we’re his flock and he watches over us.”

For a long while, Albert didn’t say anything. I listened to that kid crying in the dark because he felt lost and alone and believed no one cared.

Finally Albert whispered, “Listen, Odie, what does a shepherd eat?”

I didn’t know where he was going with that, so I didn’t reply.

“His flock,” Albert told me. “One by one.”

William Kent Krueger has written eleventy billion books, and yet this is the first of ‘em i’ve read. i have been missing out.

my deepest pleasure in reading comes from the story, and discovering a gifted storyteller, as simple as that may seem, is as rare as it is exciting. so many authors lack a natural aptitude for storytelling, or are trying too hard to reinvent the wheel, focusing on overworked stylistic zazz at their story’s expense, so when i find an author who can tell a story that sucks me in without resorting to distracting bells and whistles, i am thrilled.

the narrator of this book is a self-proclaimed storyteller, and he’s as good as his word—sensitive, observant, unfussy.

“There’s my star,” she said, pointing toward the upper glimmer in the cup of the Big Dipper.

“Your star? You own it?”

“I claimed it. There are more stars in the sky than people on earth, so there are plenty to go around. I claimed that one because if you follow the line that connects it with the one below, you’ll find the North Star. It helps me know where I’m going. What star is yours?”

“The one below,” I said. “The one that connects and helps show the way.”

that’s a pretty on-the-nose description of what a storyteller is and does, and the novel is actually framed as a story being told; the 80-something-year-old odie o’banion recounting the events of the summer of 1932 to his assembled great-grandchildren. a twelve-year-old orphan at the time, odie was living in minnesota at a school for native american children taken from their parents, forced to disavow their culture and language, under the authority of the brickmans; a relentlessly cruel couple overseeing a staff who, for the most part, exploit the children as farm labor, provide very little food, and use physical and sexual abuse as punishment, sometimes resulting in a child’s death. odie and his older brother albert are the only two white children living at the school, but they are not treated any differently; odie in particular is frequently locked in a room overnight for his infractions with only a rat for company.

their situation at the school becomes untenable, and the brothers are forced to flee, escaping along with their friend moses; a sioux boy whose tongue was cut out when he was only four and communicates using sign language, and little emmy, the newly-orphaned daughter of their beloved teacher. traveling by canoe, they begin to make their way towards st. louis, where aunt julia, the boys’ only living relative, lives. their escape is complicated by the fact that the brickmans, who want to adopt emmy, are in pursuit, claiming she has been kidnapped. coming so soon after the lindbergh kidnapping, the authorities and the press are on high alert, making their getaway that much more difficult.

it’s a straightforward coming-of-age story with light magical realism and motifs drawn from other journey-based narratives like the work of mark twain and the odyssey—there’s even a cyclops. it’s also an excellent historical novel, exposing the children to the realities of life during a national crisis; the hardships and desperation, but also the prevailing sense of community and hope. it’s got all the big-novel themes of good and evil, first love, salvation, friendship and family and all the diverging paths on the search for a home.

it’s also about the pains of growing up and growing apart—although the four of them leave together, it becomes clear along the way that they are also embarking on individual journeys, developing into a wonderfully bittersweet tone.

We risked a fire that night and sat together, talking quietly around the flames, as we had on many nights since we’d taken to the rivers. It began to feel to me as if what had been broken was coming together again, but I knew it would never be exactly the same. With every turn of the river, we were changing, becoming different people, and for the first time I understood that the journey we were on wasn’t just about getting to Saint Louis.

i’m blabbing on and on and i’ve already cut out huge chunks of this overlong reader-response, but it was just so deeply satisfying to my own readerly sensibilities that i got a little carried away.

although they might not be “true” readalikes, this put me in mind of Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance and Circus of the Queens: The Fortune Teller’s Fate, and i will definitely check out at least one of the author’s previous eleventy billion nineteen books.

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