Sunday, March 22, 2020

This Tender Land

Title:  This Tender Land
Author:  William Kent Krueger
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2019. 464 pages.
ISBN:  1476749299 / 978-1476749297

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "In the beginning, after he labored over the heavens and the earth, the light and the dark, the land and sea and all living things the dwell therein, after he created man and woman and before he reseted, I believe God gave us one final gift."

Favorite Quote:  "Of all that we're asked to give others in this life, the most difficult to offer may be forgiveness."

The story of "this tender land" is not tender and not really about the land. It is about children - four orphans - in the harshest and more dire of circumstances. Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy. This is an epic story of one summer that seems to extend so far beyond the time period it covers. For its horrific events, the story has at the same time an almost idyllic and philosophical feel.

To some extent, the name of the book is misleading although it is included in the text of the book itself. "I love this land, the work. Never was a churchgoer. God all penned up under a roof? I don't think so. Ask me, God's right here. In the dirt, the rain, the sky, the trees, the apples, the stars in the cottonwoods. In you and me, too. It's all connected and it's all God. Sure this is hard word, but it's good work because it's a part of what connects us to this land, Buck. This beautiful, tender land." Despite this inclusion, this book is not really about the land or the challenge and opportunity it presents.

This book is about the people of the land - the kind and the cruel. The story begins at the Lincoln School in Minnesota in 1932. The Lincoln School is a residential school with the primary stated purpose of assimilating Native Americans into the European American way of life. Children were removed from their homes and placed in this residential facility, often without the permission of the families. For some, it was a mission to guide the "salvation" of these children. The government provided funding based on the number of children. So, for many, it was a money making enterprise.

Odie and Albert are not of native American descent but end up as orphans at this school. The reason why is part of the story. Mose is a Native American who has been rendered mute because of someone's brutality. His acceptance and growth into his heritage is part of the story. Emmy is a young girl whose mother works at the school and lives nearby. Her gifts are a part of the story.

This "school" is more a jail-like environment where the children are nothing but workers to be used and abused. The story goes that certain events happen and the brutality gets so severe that Odie, Albert, and Mose run away from the Lincoln School. Circumstances force them into bringing Emmy along. In their wake is destruction from a storm, blackmail, and a death. They do find certain helpers who set them on their way.

Over the course of the summer, the four travel down the river. They have a destination in mind and the idea that family might be waiting at the other end. Along the way, they encounter both more horrors and more helpers. More deaths, evangelists, thieves, the law, and the outlaws. An element of magical realism is also introduced. Somehow, no matter how bad the circumstances, the book maintains a bit of idealism. Perhaps, as the book suggests, it is because the main characters are children. "Our eyes perceive so dimly, and our brains are so easily confused. Far better, I believe, to be like children and open ourselves to every beautiful possibility, for there is nothing our hearts can imagine that is not so."

Perhaps, it is because the narrator is actually Odie much much later in life relating the story of this one summer. "'And you've already been given a gift.' 'What gift?' 'You're a storyteller. You can create the world in any way your heart imagines.'" Perhaps, the gift of time and storytelling dims the sad and horrific parts. "Everything that's been done to us we carry forever. Most of us do our damnedest to hold on to the good and forget the rest. But somewhere to hold on to the good and forget the rest. But somewhere in the vault of our hearts, in a place our brains can't or won't touch, the worst is stored, and the only sure key to it is in our dreams."

No matter what, the result is a philosophical, haunting tale of the dark history of the treatment of Native Americans and at the same time of the resilience of children and the joy of creating a family.

"But I believe if you tell a story, it's like sending a nightingale into the air with the hope that its song will never be forgotten." This is story I will long remember.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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