This Tender Land
I’d never heard of this author until his book was chosen for discussion by my book group next December. Normally I’d wait to read a selection closer to the meeting (too easy to forget!), but I was in need of a book, and the spate of undesirable ones being hyped by publishers lately made me desperate. THIS TENDER LAND was published in 2019 and is head and shoulders above the current crop of books.
Ostensibly a coming-of-age story, THIS TENDER LAND is set in Minnesota in 1932. Orphans Odie and Albert O’Banion have been living at a state school for Indian children that is a horrific, prison-like place rife with corruption, cruelty, and bigotry. Though 12-year-old Odie (our narrator) and Albert are not Native American, they endure the cruelty as well.
In a bold, frantic move, they escape with their dearest friend, a mute boy of Sioux birth, and the very young, newly orphaned daughter of the one woman who was kind to them. And so they become wanted for theft, murder, and kidnapping. Mindful of evading the law, they set out in a canoe to paddle from Minnesota to St. Louis, where Odie and Albert have an aunt. They barely remember her. But they do know she cares.
This book is about their journey, both literal and metaphorical. The writing is spot-on for the setting – gracious and grand without being gaudy. Characters are vividly drawn yet nuanced, one being the Great Depression, itself, which the author has depicted with a subtlety that makes it real. “An instant classic,” one review touts, and while I’m not sure about the “instant” part (an oxymoron, that term?), THIS TENDER LAND is definitely classic-bound.
Odie is searching for a place where he belongs and is loved. Aren’t we all? He is searching for a better America. Aren’t we all?
THIS TENDER LAND tackles themes of the power of belief, redemption, and inherent goodness, with just enough mystery woven in to keep the reader reading. I’m still clinging to this story, can’t wait to discuss it with others.