Bob Moyer reviews a book he says takes a familiar story and makes it new, a story that’s a pleasure to read.
Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer
THIS TENDER LAND. By William Kent Krueger. Atria. 460 pages. $27.
You’ve met this bunch of kids before–a ragtag group suffering abuse, in this case the only three white kids and an Indian boy escaping from an Indian school. Off they go in 1932, down the river in a canoe, this mystic and mythic group —the little girl who has clairvoyant fits, the youngest boy, named Odie nee Odysseus. Headed down the Mississippi to St. Louis, they run into other mythic and mystic characters, like the one-eyed pig-scarer and the evangelist healer. Yes, The Odyssey, Huckleberry Finn, Life on The Mississippi, even Stand By Me. This story has been written before.
But not by William Kent Krueger.
Here is a book not encountered often these days, an epic about the heart of the country, the heart of America. In prose that borders at times on poetry, and sometimes threatens to flower a bit, Krueger takes us on an American journey through This Tender Land. Along the way we encounter the pain of Indian children torn from their families and thrown into torturous facilities. Farther down the river, the group, self-named the Vagabonds, comes across a Hooverville, where people moving from one place to another have found the only place they can stay. Not too much farther, they become part of the river people living on the mudflats in St. Paul, and friends with the denizens of the Jewish ghetto. Krueger consistently throws light on the land he has adopted, Minnesota, where most of the book takes place.
He also depicts with edge-of-the-chair urgency the dramatic ups and downs of the Vagabonds, as they move in and out of danger, their nemesis in close pursuit behind them. Each character is clearly defined and clearly brought into the readers’ sympathies.
In spite of the sprawl of this novel, Krueger, known for his mystery series, keeps the plot tight. He maneuvers the Vagabonds adroitly both through adventure and through the countryside. Krueger’s twists and turns bring a satisfying resolution of plot lines the reader had forgotten, and in at least one instance, had no idea even existed. In this day and age of flash fiction and twitter poems, it is a pleasure to return day after day to savor the story Krueger tells, and to experience a sadness when it’s over.