In 'This Tender Land,' writer crafts a Minnesota odyssey on the Mississippi

“This Tender Land,” by St. Paul writer William Kent Krueger.
“This Tender Land,” by St. Paul writer William Kent Krueger.
Courtesy photo

St. Paul writer William Kent Krueger shows us what an Odyssean story set in Depression-era Minnesota would look like in “This Tender Land,” a tale of four orphans escaping the cruelty of their Native American boarding school.

Canoeing the Mississippi River, the children, ages 6 to 16, end up on a journey of discovery, each searching for something different. That includes Moes, a Sioux boy who doesn’t speak because his tongue was cut out when he was 4 years old.

“His journey is a journey in terms of his relationship to his past and the past of his people,” Krueger told MPR News host Tom Crann. “The more he comes to understand that, the more powerfully he stands up for that culture and their beliefs.”

Moes, he added, “stands for a whole culture that could not speak its demands, wants and needs for a very long time.”

Krueger may be best known for writing the Cork O’Connor mystery series. He said he wanted to break from that structure with “This Tender Land” and embrace the unknown that comes with imagination.

“It gives me a broad, clean canvas on which to paint,” he said.

In the book, the children wrestle with threats, violence and their views on God. The character Odie compares God to a tornado early on, but that conception becomes more complex as the story progresses.

Krueger compares Odie’s wrestling with God to his own.

“If we look at the world around us, we see all sorts of horrible things occurring,” Krueger said. “What exactly is the kind of God we believe in?”

Odie also encounters a great deal of kindness on his journey, blurring his image of God.

The story is narrated through two points of view: Odie as a naive 12-year-old trying to understand a world full of complexities and mysteries, and Odie as an adult who has all of his years of wisdom behind him.

“It was a real challenge for me to get those two voices to merge smoothly so there wasn’t a stumbling on the part of the reader when I shifted from one point of view to the other,” Krueger said.

While “The Odyssey” inspired the work, he said “This Tender Land” wasn’t meant as a modern adaptation of the ancient Greek poem that recounts another epic journey.

The novel, similar to others he’s written, contains real and fictional towns in Minnesota. To capture life in the state during the Great Depression, Krueger dug through Depression-era newspaper articles at the Minnesota Historical Society and visited all of the places his characters travel. He even kayaked a stretch of the Minnesota River.

“People are calling it a historical novel, which kind of makes me smile,” he said.

Krueger’s fascination with Minnesota began when he moved here 40 years ago. “The minute my wife and I set foot in Minnesota,” he said. “I knew I’d found home.”

Click the audio player above to hear William Kent Krueger’s interview with All Things Considered host Tom Crann.

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