The water tower outside the town of Gilead, Minn., once had bold, black letters that read “WELCOME TO HELL.” As the site of the Lincoln Indian Trading School, where the guiding philosophy was “Kill the Indian, save the man,” the hellish description was pretty apt.
But when young Odie O’Bannon was on his way out of town, fleeing chaos and cruelty at the school but headed for an uncertain future, he climbed up the tower to change the message to “GOD IS A TORNADO.”
“This Tender Land,” William Kent Krueger’s picaresque tale of Odie, his brother and two other youngsters on their trip south from Minnesota, paints God in a number of ways — as a tornado that upends young lives, as a healer, as a font of forgiveness. On his river journey south, Odie finds crushing Depression poverty, casual cruelty, violence, the supernatural, even anti-Semitism.
Since the tale is told by Odie as an elderly man back in Minnesota, it’s no spoiler to say that, in the end, Krueger’s protagonist finds the peace and the true home he has long sought.
And the lessons he learns are applicable far beyond the river from Minnesota to his destination of Missouri, he says.
“With every turn of the river,” Odie notes, “we were changing, becoming different people, and for the first time I understood that the journey we were on wasn’t just about getting to Saint Louis.”
A few pages later, he adds that, “since I’d left Lincoln School, the world had become broader, its mysteries more complex, its possibilities infinite.”
In an author’s note at the end of the book, Krueger says he envisioned “This Tender Land” as “an update of Huckleberry Finn,” and that antecedent is clear on almost every one of his briskly written pages. Life for the four river vagabonds, traveling a step or two ahead of the law, is similar to that of Huck and Jim on the Mississippi, as they meet a rogues gallery of colorful characters — some of whom pop up later in the tale in unusual ways.
Krueger’s writing is usually plain, although at times it wanders close to the purple prose boundary. For example, when Odie finally escapes school, even though his freedom is tentative with the law on his trail, he still revels in his new ability to roam via the river:
“The air I breathed felt cleaner than any I’d breathed before. The white satin ribbon that was the moonlit river and the silvered cottonwoods and the black velvet sky with its millions of diamonds seemed to me the most beautiful things I’d ever seen.”
But the tone and the story of the 1932 episodic river odyssey match nicely. In an introductory note to readers, Krueger says he originally planned to write a companion novel to his award-winning “Ordinary Grace” from 2013, but after working on it for nearly three years, he realized that “the completed manuscript fell far short of what I’d hoped.”
Then, he adds, once “all the expectations were lifted from my shoulders and I felt free again,” he started on a “completely different kind of story, one deeply personal.”
Even if you’re already in St. Louis, joining Odie and his companions on their way to “This Tender Land” will be a nice trip to take.
Dale Singer retired in 2017 after a 45-year career in journalism in St. Louis. He lives in west St. Louis County.