“Only God is perfect…To the rest of us, he gave all kinds of wrinkles….If we were perfect the light he shines on us would just bounce off. But the wrinkles they catch the light. And the cracks? That’s how the light gets inside of us.” Sister Eve
For once it was the right hype at the right moment that got my attention. Hearing it compared to Where the Crawdads Sing did it for me. Then I read the synopsis and was hooked. I listened to the audio version which was superb.
Orphan Odie O’Banion and his older brother, Albert, are sent to live at the Lincoln School–a boarding school for the “assimilation” [re-education] of Native American Children in Minnesota. It is 1932 and the Depression has struck America. Conditions at the school are bleak and brutal–truly a Dickensian setting. Odie and Albert are not “Indians” like the other children. They are in the school due to the local orphanages being filled to capacity or beyond. Their friend “Mose” is a Sioux whose tongue was cut out when his mother was killed. The one ray of goodness and decency they have a Lincoln School is Mrs. Frost–a teacher who has them come help at her farm and shows them some motherly love and tenderness. All three boys dote on her little girl, Emmy. [Minor spoiler–sorry] When Mrs. Frost is killed in a tornado and the head of Lincoln takes Emmy the boys know they must escape the prison-like school and take the little girl with them. The book tells of their “Oddysey” of a journey.
I loved nearly all of this book. The author clearly understands the psychological make-up of abused and abandoned children. The mistrust, the near-paranoia, the longing to belong and to be loved but the inability to let down a guard and relax–they are all present in the boys. The boys are canny and cagy—surviving and protecting Emmy with their wits more than their physical power–though both come into play. The need to be loved, to cling to a stranger, the other little nuances that abused and abandoned little girls display are all there in sweet Emmy. These children were so real to me! [Note: Horrific things happen to children, but there is no description or even “naming” of the acts except for beatings with a strap.]
The best thing about this book was its unexpected positive spin on Christian faith. Krueger uses the “Black Witch,” the head of the school, to show how empty faith can be when it is just religion forced on an audience and how hypocritical all people can be. Odie, like many abused and abandoned children, feels unworthy of salvation–unworthy of God’s forgiveness. “God is a Tornado” he proclaims. Two people lead him to real faith: Sister Eve, an itinerate evangelist who tells him she only prays for forgiveness, and who shows the children a mother’s love and care. Then there is Mother Beal [I listened to the audio, so the spelling may be wrong] who, in spite of losing everything and living in a “Hooverville,” of tents and shacks, retains the faith and appreciation of “Indian” culture gained from her family member who was a long-time missionary to Native Americans. Her refusal to let down her standards or to compromise her faith inspires Odie.
Where the book lost a bit of my respect was in the one predictable pc moment and in the “full-circle” storyline [this is necessarily vague as I try not to post spoilers]. These are a very small matter, as is the use of current-day, expressions [once each] “X–not so much” and “it’s complicated” by young people in 1932. No matter to the story, but they stood out. This book is a treasure though. A coming of age story, a road trip story, a story of redemption all in one. It is the first on my list of the potential “Best Book Read in 2020.”
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
[I give 5 stars very, very rarely]