Combination of ‘Huckleberry Fin’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – ‘This Tender Land’ offers a river odyssey set in a Minnesota that is part real and part imagined.
Odie – short for the famous Greek traveler Odysseus – is a storyteller. This skill helps him get through the long hours of solitary confinement where he spends much of his time at the Lincoln School for Indian Children. It also helps those around him deal with the harsh realities of living at the school as well as life in Depression-era Minnesota.
Odie is looked out for by his older brother Albert, their best friend Mose and a couple of kind teachers. Together they shield him from the wrath of the school superintendent who they have nicknamed ‘The Black Witch’.
Circumstances take an even darker turn when a twister starts a chain events that force Odie, Albert, Mose and the recently orphaned Emmy to flee via canoe down the mythical river Gilead. Their goal is to get to the Minnesota River and from there follow the Mississippi River to St. Louis where Odie and Albert’s Aunt Julie lives.
Dubbing themselves the four Vagabonds, the orphans search for a home in a river journey reminiscent of Huckleberry Finn and his friend Jim’s river voyage in search of freedom. Their paths cross with others who are adrift – struggling farmers, displaced families, faith healers and other lost souls.
There is even singing and music. In addition to storytelling Odie has a gift with the harmonica. His playing enchants those the vagabonds encounter and gives them joy and hope in a time of sadness and want.
Unlike Huck and Jim’s journey though, there is a magical thread that weaves it’s way into the story. Young Emmy has a special gift that is wanted by the Black Witch who will stop at nothing to capture and use her. While there is no yellow brick road one isn’t needed – the rivers the Vagabonds travel on have there own characters and secrets.
There is even a ‘Good Witch’ – the faith healer Sister Eve who despite initial appearances may also have a true gift. Saint Louis is no Oz and Aunt Julie is no wizard but the journey to get to her – with all its surprising twists and turns – reveals that the family and the love the orphans are searching for was with them all along.
There aren’t many Depression-era books that take place in Minnesota which makes this book especially compelling. The silence of the native American children at the school as well as the mute Mose reflects the silence surrounding the history of the native Americans in this part of the world. The consequences of that history on the Vagabonds and how it threatens their little family are especially poignant.
We live in different times today. Thanks to COVID instead of being vagabonds we’re trapped in our homes and separated from our loved ones. However, like the vagabonds our story is ours to imagine and to tell. I enjoyed my time with Odie and his storytelling. His odyssey is a reminder that love and forgiveness are always within us even if we can’t make the physical journey to find it.