Comparative: William Kent Krueger’s “This Tender Land” and “Ordinary Grace”- Part 1

The author, William Kent Krueger, is incredibly talented.  I am so happy to have discovered his books.  Based on a book list for summer 2020 and buzz about “This Tender Land” I read that book first.  Followed very quickly after (as soon as my request came through in hard copy from the library!) I read “Ordinary Grace.”  This will be another comparative of two books both written by the same author.  Here, I will focus on the intersection in both books of the following themes:  the history and treatment of Native American Indians, characters with disabilities and special abilities, and innocence as a conduit to truth in a coming of age story. 

As a preface, I read “This Tender Land” before, during, and after our family’s first driving vacation through the Midwest to Colorado and back home, returning further north through Wyoming, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin in the summer of 2020.  I couldn’t believe the kismet of my reading this particular book as we traveled through the land that the main characters journey through as well.  What is even more amazing is that we toured Native American lands as well which brought this first topic home visually.  

The best way to start is with background so I will share a short synopsis from the author’s website:

“In Minnesota, in the summer of 1932, on the banks of the Gilead River, the Lincoln Indian Training School is a pitiless place where Native American children, forcibly separated from their parents, are sent to be educated. It is also home to Odie O’Banion, a lively orphan boy whose exploits constantly earn him the superintendent’s wrath. Odie and his brother, Albert, are the only white faces among the hundreds of Native American children at the school.

After committing a terrible crime, Odie and Albert are forced to flee for their lives along with their best friend, Mose, a mute young man of Sioux heritage. Out of pity, they also take with them a brokenhearted little girl named Emmy. Together, they steal away in a canoe, heading for the mighty Mississippi in search of a place to call home. Over the course of one unforgettable summer, these four orphan vagabonds journey into the unknown, crossing paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds.”[i]

I feel like I connected with these characters, which is incredible because there were so many.  However, each one was distinct.  The main characters have to be kept organized by the reader because they use fake names when meeting most new people, especially adults.  However, the brilliance of Kent Krueger’s writing is that each character is her own persona – clearly described and vividly alive to the reader – which makes it easy to keep a picture in mind of the characters and setting.    

The treatment of Native American Indians is at the heart of this novel.  The school itself where the four main characters escape from is a horrific quasi-orphanage for Native American Indian children, except most of them were not orphans.  The underlying insanity of the concept of taking these children from their parents is only magnified by the atrocious villain who heads the school – The Black Witch.  Her presence is felt throughout the novel, and even as the children flee from her down the Mississippi River there is the eerie feeling while reading that she is looking for them, maybe even close to catching them, much like the Wicked Witch of the West following Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion.  Even with this setting at the school presented, the author further develops the landscape of the times with each stop the characters make along their journey.  The characters learned more about the devastation that the Native American Indians have suffered over the years through their discoveries and their friend, Mose.  They also witness the current state of affairs belied with racism and violence against the tribes remaining members when they are in the Flats. 

First, when the group stumbles upon the skeleton of a Native American boy, they are shocked.  However their reactions after a moment of recognition are different.  Albert doesn’t think there’s anything that they can do, being children themselves and on the run.  However, Mose, being of Sioux descent himself, reacts strongly.  He is offended and angered by what they have discovered and his friends’ lackadaisical reaction.  Up to that point in the story, the group is not separated really ever.  However, this causes a rift between Mose and the rest of the characters.  Mose sets off on his own and isolates himself, not communicating, only to return days later angrily rejoining the group. 

Later, we find out that during his time away from the group, he has learned about the Dakota Conflict of 1862, which resulted in the firing squad execution of thirty-eight Sioux and the deaths of hundreds more.  This gruesome knowledge rocks Mose to his core, and he is changed forever.  Not only does it change him to be more identified with his heritage and defensive of his culture, but it also affects the others.  I think the others realize the outside world may not be any better than inside the Lincoln School in terms of racism and mistreatment of Native American Indians.  They must seek ways to improve not only their lives by escaping, but also fight against numbing themselves to the realities of the ongoing mistreatment of any person of Native American Indian descent. 

The tension of Dakota Conflict of 1862[ii] is one that lives just below the surface of the storyline of “This Tender Land.”  What is the land that these characters are traveling over but formerly the tender land of the Sioux people and all the Native American Indian tribes that inhabited North America before European exploration?  The ensuing conflicts over the land in what is now the United States of America first began with conflicts between these people and European conquerors.  These battles were followed by more fighting between the original U.S. government armies seeking to expand west beyond the confines of the formerly British colonies and Native American Indian peoples trying to keep their land.  There is no easy solution to resolving the history and pain between both sides, but the author does paint a picture of how sensitivity and recognition of past atrocities can lay the groundwork toward better relationships going forward.  Odie realizes this and begins to show more sensitivity toward Mose and his culture. 

Reading this book just after the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota and discussing it after more social injustice, protesting, and shootings over the summer, shows how truly divided our nation continues to be amongst many races.  Again, in Minnesota, fast forwarding years ahead, this book could be written by telling the story of the killing of George Floyd with characters responding in different ways to the memories.  Sensitivity and recognition of past atrocities dating back to slavery in the United States, Jim Crowe era lynching, crimes against Black communities, post-civil rights desegregation inequalities in education, and on to present day chasms in the nation between Black people and white people, can be one step in the right direction toward reconciliation.  The author is demonstrating through his characters how sensitivity amongst friends of different backgrounds can be one way to forge any racial divide.

The Dakota Conflict is referenced in the preceding novel written in 2013, “Ordinary Grace.”  Although the history of the event is contained within the context of the story, it is emphasized and described in much more detail in “This Tender Land.”  The treatment of the incident is starkly different in each novel, but looking back at both novels now it seems as if the author planted the seed in the chronologically first novel published, “Ordinary Grace” and then followed with a much more thorough analysis of the situation in “This Tender Land.”

By way of background, here is another synopsis this time of “Ordinary Grace” from the author’s website:

“In 1961 New Bremen, Minnesota, all is quiet and serene. The Minnesota River flows through the countryside, the town barber knows everyone’s name, and folks dutifully attend church every Sunday. But that serenity is thrown into turmoil as a series of tragic deaths lead thirteen-year-old Frank Drum and his family on a hunt for terrible truths. But at what cost comes wisdom? In this powerful novel from the author of the Cork O’Connor mysteries, a boy must leave his childhood behind and confront the dark nature of the adult world and its myriad moral questions: What secrets will destroy us? How do we deal with grief? And what solace is there in the ordinary grace of the world?”[iii]

The author writes “Ordinary Grace,” in beautiful, melodic prose.  The reader is swept away into the vast openness of small town Minnesota and the open, searching mind of an innocent boy grasping at his take on the world.  The two aspects of the novel parallel one another – the setting and the main character, Frank.  Frank’s ability at such a young age of 13 to navigate through open passage ways in the town’s forests and along the river and railroad track is incredible.  He is searching for truth and goes wherever he wants to find it.  He is a light in the darkness of the summer of 1961, along with his brother, Jake. 

The Dakota Conflict of 1862 is included in this novel, but only briefly.  It is not focused on with the characters possibly because there is already so much darkness ominously present that summer in their lives.  Instead, Warren Redstone, the Native American Indian uncle of one of Frank’s friends, introduces the Dakota Conflict to Frank to set a stage for what kind of world he lives in and to share the history that still lives in his life.  This character’s presence is felt throughout the novel and his actions weigh heavily on Frank’s mind.  In the end, Warren Redstone serves as a red herring in terms of criminal suspects.  But, more importantly, he serves as a reminder that white Americans at the time did not follow the innocent until proven guilty standards when it came to criminal activity suspected of a Native American Indian or a descendent of any tribal nation.  In fact, his character served as the personification of the racism and discrimination against the Native American Indian people that continued through the time setting of the book, the summer of 1961.  Once Warren Redstone is on the run from the law, his family including his nephew, Frank’s friend, is subjected to vandalism at their home, rants of racial slurs from neighbors, and overall ugliness and violence that leads them to leave the town. 

Warren Redstone is intertwined with the history of his people just as Mose grows to understand that he is as well.  They are each lightning rods through which the effects of the tragedy continue to live on and push each character to learn more about the history.  Mose teaches how much more attention and reverence is needed for his people’s history.  Warren Redstone teaches awareness of racism and justice is not equal for all. 

The storyline in “Ordinary Grace” can be viewed as another modern commentary on racism just like “This Tender Land” can be viewed that way.  There should be such sadness in this country where discrimination is overtly and covertly practiced like it is in “Ordinary Grace.”  There should be a call for action from our government to stamp out racism through the legal process.  There are so many unaccounted effects of discrimination that go unaccounted for like Warren Redstone’s family feeling so oppressed that they chose to move from their hometown.   We as a nation will never be living with any grace if we don’t treat each other equally.  The author knows this and chooses to highlight these marginalized tribal people in both novels.   Thereby, he performs a civic duty teaching us all the Native American Indian history we were not taught in school and without this history lesson the discrimination will continue to be repeated. 

Another way the author shows how this discrimination can be addressed is through the modeling of Nathan Drum.  Frank Drum’s father is a beacon of light in recognizing this discrimination.  He reaches out to their family.  He knows that the legal process will take time, and he has the good sense to speak out against the vandalism and racially motivated accusations and assumptions. 

We need more people in this world like Frank’s father, Nathan Drum.  He beats a drum for faith, love, and hope, as the preacher of their Methodist church in New Bremen.  I wish there were more people who lived and breathed today with his authenticity and courage.    

Overall, these books imbue the reader with the tenderness and grace that can be achieved with knowledge, recognition, and sensitivity for marginalized people.  We are weak when we let discrimination continue.   We are strong when we recognize it and speak out against it.

© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail


[i] Excerpted from the William Kent Kreuger website available at:  https://williamkentkrueger.com/standalone/this-tender-land/#discussion-guide. This is an excellent resource for the author’s books containing book discussion guides for book clubs that are the most thorough and creative guides I have come across in years of hosting my book club.  For example, within this guide, there is a map included as well as a song list chronologically listing the songs as they appeared in the book with coordinating page numbers.  There is even a Spotify playlist created for the songs in the book under the title, “This Tender Land.”

[ii] “Throughout the late 1850s in the lead-up to the war, treaty violations by the United States and late annuity payments by Indian agents caused increasing hunger and hardship among the Dakota. During the war, the Dakota made extensive attacks on hundreds of settlers and immigrants, which resulted in settler deaths, and caused many to flee the area. This ended with soldiers capturing hundreds of Dakota men and interning their families. A military tribunal quickly tried the men, sentencing 303 to death for their crimes. President Lincoln would later commute the sentence of 264 of them. The mass hanging of 38 Dakota men was conducted on December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota; it [is] the largest mass execution in United States history.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakota_War_of_1862

[iii] Excerpted from the William Kent Kreuger website available at:  https://williamkentkrueger.com/standalone/ordinary-grace/#discussion-guide.  Another great discussion guide and 1950s and 60s  rock n’ roll classics inspired by “Ordinary Grace” on Spotify.

%d bloggers like this: