It would take some effort to be a Minnesotan working in some form of book-related occupation (seller, librarian, reviewer, etc) and not be familiar with William Kent Krueger. He is best known for his Cork O’Connor mystery series … known for this enough so that it’s quite noteworthy when he comes out with a book that isn’t part of the series.
I’m not among Krueger’s legion of dedicated fans – I’ve only read a few of the Cork O’Connor books and I’ve enjoyed them well-enough but I don’t wait eagerly for each new book (though I know people who do) – but I do enjoy his work, so I do request his books when I see them available for review.
This Tender Land also takes place in Minnesota, like many of his other books, but it takes place during the Depression era of the 1930’s in rural Minnesota. Our narrator is a young orphan, Odie O’Banion, who, along with his brother Albert, lives in a home/school that is meant for Indian children. The caretakers of the home are vile humans who steal the money sent to the children by families, beat the children regularly, and cage them in inhumane conditions for often made-up infractions.
Odie and Albert have had about as much as they can take and when Odie accidentally kills a worker (in self-defense), they decide it is time to run away. They take a number of their fellow children with them and have many strange encounters on their journey as they try to avoid capture.
I had three very strong reactions as I read through this. The first two I believe have been commented on in other reviews of the book by other reviewers: 1) there is a strong sense of this being a Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn-style adventure or retelling; 2) the the sense of this being a retelling of Homer’s The Odyssey is not just strong but sometimes hit-over-the-head overt (Odie’s name is short for Odysseus); and 3) sometimes this book was so depressing I wasn’t sure I wanted to finish it.
Krueger is a powerful writer and he really sucks you into his stories. His characters are painfully real – “painfully” because we experience their fears and anger and trauma right along with them. And given the abysmal conditions our protagonists grow in, we have a lot of trauma to experience.
The story unfolds remarkably well. Again, you expect nothing less from a storyteller like Krueger. And this was a story that, even while I was too often uncomfortable and feeling some anxiety over what was happening, I couldn’t help but keep reading.
There were moments when The Odyssey angle was just a little too much for me. It’s seems to be in vogue to retell The Odyssey and I’m not sure I need that anymore, though at least Krueger does it well. But when the retelling is so strong that the reader consciously makes the connection, then why not read the original?
This is a powerful story, often uncomfortable, and possibly not for everyone.
Looking for a good book? This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger is a slight departure for Krueger as this literary novel retells The Odyssey story with an orphan boy in the Great Depression as our main protagonist.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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This Tender Land
author: William Kent Krueger
publisher: Atria Books
hardcover, 464 pages