‘This Tender Land’ by William Kent Krueger

By LARRY BALLWAHN | Wilton

William Kent Krueger is the author of the “Cork O’Connor” mystery series. I first discovered Krueger when “Ordinary Grace,” a standalone novel, was an Ontario Public Library selection. I subsequently discovered the mysteries. “This Tender Land” also is a standalone novel. Like “Ordinary Grace,” an examination of religious faith plays a part in the story, but it isn’t the story.

When the story begins, Odie O’Banion and his brother, Albert, are the only white children at the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota. Hundreds of Native American children are there, mostly, but not all, from the area. It’s 1932, and the O’Banion boy’s father has just been shot dead, leaving the boys orphans, thus the nearby Indian School.

Mrs. Brickman, the “Black Witch” as she was known out of her hearing, ran the school like a prison, complete with a quiet room (solitary confinement) and whipping. The “training” was often forced labor for area farmers. That and forcing the Indian children to be white. Every student had uniform dress mostly comprised of overalls. The brothers couldn’t have been more different. Albert, 4 years older than 12-year-old Odie, was a rule follower and honest to a fault. Odie was known for his clever, not necessarily honest, means of solving a problem. He was a trouble causer, often paying the price for that by the choice of the jobs he was given. Vincent DiMarco was the person that gave the “strappings.”

When Odie stood up for a small Indian boy who DiMarco was bullying, it was DiMarco’s last straw. Odie’s time was limited. After a desperate act, Odie and his brother realized they had to leave, along with their close friend, Mose. Strangely enough, it was a tornado that allowed the opportunity. It also added a fourth to their party. Emmy, the young daughter of Mrs. Frost, the girls’ counselor, was left an orphan by the storm. To save her from the clutches of Mrs. Brickman, she begged to go along. It was at the Frost farm that the Gilead River was to provide an escape route using the Frost canoe.

The Gilead ran into the Minnesota, which ran into the Mississippi, which ran by St. Louis. That was the destination, since the O’Banions knew they had an aunt there, in a pink house. The route was long, the adventures many, but the foursome avoided getting caught for over a month even though there was a considerable reward posted for the “kidnapping” of Emmy. 1932 was the year of the Lindbergh case, and kidnapping was very much on the public’s mind.

Of considerable help was their decision to join Sister Eve’s Christian Healing Show and Albert’s outstanding ability to solve mechanical problems. For reasons that will become clear when you read the book, only Odie reaches St. Louis, initially. He manages to locate his aunt, but what else he finds there is surprising to him and to the reader.

In the first paragraph, I referred to the examination of religious faith. Odie, who has had a religious upbringing, deemed God the “Tornado God” after what had happened to the brothers and Emmy. But Jack, where they were working, says, “The land is what it is. Life is what it is. Man is what he is, God is what God is. You and me, we’re what we are. None of it’s perfect. Or, hell, maybe it all is and we’re just not wise enough to see it.”

That’s not the last word.

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