Thursday, April 21, 2022

Fiction Review: This Tender Land

I've been hearing great things about William Kent Krueger's novels for years now, but I hadn't yet read one. So, I was thrilled when our library system chose This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger as our All-County Reads selection for this spring. My own neighborhood book group then chose the novel as our April book. This engrossing, warmhearted, suspenseful historical novel just blew me away. I loved every minute of it and never wanted it to end. And though I missed our discussion, I think my book group agreed because this novel got one of our highest ratings ever (8.4 out of 10).

It's 1932, and a group of orphans are living in the Lincoln Indian Training School in southern Minnesota along the Gilead River. Though most residents at the school are Native American children (both orphaned and those sent to the school by well-meaning or desperate parents), there are two white brothers who have lived there since their parents died four years earlier. Odie O'Banion is twelve in 1932, and his older brother, Albert, is sixteen. While Albert is a model citizen, Odie is always getting into trouble. But regardless of behavior, Lincoln School is a frightening and dangerous place to grow up. The superintendent of the school, Mrs. Brickman, widely known to the students as the Black Witch, is cruel, and some of the adults she has hired are even worse. She's been threatening to send Odie to reformatory school, so the brothers know they need to get out of there soon. When disaster strikes and things become even more dangerous for the boys, they set off in a canoe, along with their best friend, Mose. Mose is an Indian boy about Albert's age who was found as an infant in a ditch next to his dead mother. His tongue had been cut out, so he could not speak as he got older. The school officials named him Moses for the way he was found, abandoned in the rushes. One reason he's so close to the O'Banion boys is that they taught him sign language, having learned it as small children because their mother was born deaf, which opened up his world. When the three boys set out in the canoe, a younger girl they've pledged to protect comes along. The four children head down the river, knowing that it will intersect with the Minnesota River and eventually, with the Mississippi River. They hope to make it to St. Louis, where Odie and Albert have an aunt they barely remember. Along the way, they encounter many kind people--and many dangerous ones as well. Through it all, the Brickmans have law enforcement searching for them, and all four of the kids just dream of having a home and a place to belong.

Their journey begins at about page 90, and the novel is almost 450 pages long, but I wanted to avoid any spoilers (as always) in my plot summary above, so I focused on the backstory. But theirs is an epic journey, covering months and many miles and many lessons learned. There is plenty of suspense here, as the kids face one challenge after another: being held captive at one point, one of their lives in imminent danger at another, a constant fear of getting caught and sent back, and more. It is also a very thoughtful novel, as each of the kids grapples with question of identity, family, and destiny. We get to know Odie, as the narrator of the novel, especially well, and he is struggling with the question of God, feeling as though God is a destructive force after all they've been through. Here, a farmer they meet along the way shares his own ideas of God (Buck is Odie's alias here):

"Everything's hard work, Buck. You don't wrap your thinking around that, life'll kill you for sure. Me, 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 work, but it's good work because it's a part of what connects us to this land. This beautiful, tender land."

This passage highlights Krueger's beautiful writing and the thought-provoking ideas woven throughout the novel. While the kids see many new things and tackle many difficult challenges on their trip down the rivers, this is far more than an adventure story. It is also a fascinating piece of historical fiction, bringing to life the difficult years of the depression and how it affected different people. Krueger has even woven in elements of fairy tales and myths throughout the narrative. Most of all, this novel is both heartbreaking and heartwarming. These poor kids endure so much and struggle so hard, but ultimately, they discover they are each other's family, and the story comes to a satisfying conclusion, though not before many surprising plot twists! All in all, it's a nearly perfect novel, which is why my vote for my book group was for a perfect 10. I just wish I could have gone to our discussion; I am still itching to talk to someone about it! I can't wait to read more of Krueger's novels, now that I know what I've been missing.

444 pages, Atria Paperback

This book fits in the following 2022 Reading Challenges:

Mount TBR Challenge

Alphabet Soup Challenge - T

Diversity Challenge

Note: This post contains affiliate links. Purchases from these links provide a small commission to me (pennies per purchase), to help offset the time I spend writing for this blog, at no extra cost to you.

Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!


Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible. The sample is from Odie's Prologue and the beginning of Chapter 1 and gives a good introduction to the story. The narrator sounds wonderful!


You can buy the book through, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!



Or you can order This Tender Land from Book Depository, with free shipping worldwide.


  1. I think I have mentioned that this book has been on my TBR shelf for ages now. Due to your hints at how much you enjoyed it and this review, I have put it on my coffee table to start my "May" pile of books that I will read.

    1. Oh, good, Helen - I think you will love it! And, remember, it qualifies for Big Book Summer!

  2. Sounds absolutely fantastic--the writing as well as the premise make it seem like a winner.

    Excellent review--thank you.

    1. It was fantastic! Glad you enjoyed the review. Definitely already in my Top 10 for the year!