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This Tender Land is an epic tale of four orphans who canoe along the Gilead, Minnesota, and Mississippi Rivers, escaping from a dark, abusive place and searching for a home in depression-era America.
I read This Tender Land as part of the 2022 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. April’s challenge was to read a book about the outdoors or that mostly takes place outside. This Tender Land fit the bill nicely because a major portion is set on rivers.
The first part of the novel takes place at the Lincoln Indian Training School in Minnesota in 1932. The four main characters have ties to the school. Odie (the narrator) and his brother, Albert, are students at the boarding school. Although they aren’t native Americans, a twist of fate landed them at the school. Mose is a member of the Sioux tribe who had his tongue cut out when he was little and now speaks lyrically with his hands. And little Emmy is the young daughter of a widowed teacher at the school.
Life at the Lincoln Indian Training School is miserable for the students and even many of the staff. The school is run by “The Black Witch” and her spineless husband, who live in luxury off the donations to the school. Additionally, a staff member named DiMarco brutally terrorizes the kids.
A killer tornado leaves Emmy orphaned, and a violent incident requires Odie to go on the run, so the four friends hit the Gilead River in Emmy’s family’s canoe. Their journey gives the author the opportunity to put the four “vagabonds” in a series of harrowing, unique, and very interesting situations, most of which are reflections on the human condition.
I particularly liked it when the four encountered a revival and decided to stay a while. Although the revival scenes contained some chicanery, there were elements of genuine faith that factored into Odie’s quest to better understand God. From Odie’s perspective, God was cruel and disruptive, like a tornado, but his understanding of God evolves as the book unfolds.
I also liked the character development. All four of the main characters were sufficiently complex, although they were still very young. And many of the people they encountered as they traveled were neither all good nor all bad, which made them much more human.
I also appreciated how the author handled some very sensitive topics in American history. Unfortunately, sending native American kids to boarding schools, whose goals were to assimilate the kids by eradicating their native cultures, was a common practice. One well-known school even lived by the principle “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
I also found the depiction of life during the depression both interesting and sad. Odie spent some time in a Hooverville, a shanty town named for then President Herbert Hoover. These popped up all over the US during the Great Depression. The four vagabonds also spent some time in a mostly Jewish slum on the banks of the Mississippi, and the author noted how common discrimination of Jewish people was at the time.
Okay, one more thing about what I liked. Throughout This Tender Land, there was a theme that “you’re not alone.” These four orphans formed a family that took care of each other. And they added good people to their family as they traveled the rivers. I thought that was a good message about the decency of people and the ability of people to find a sense of belonging even in the absence of a family.
All in all, This Tender Land is a good, heartfelt story with an ultimately uplifting message. If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts.
And if you read a book about or set in the great outdoors, please tell us all about it.
**Reminder: May’s challenge is to read a book set in space in honor of National Space Day (May 6th).