Comparative: William Kent Krueger’s “This Tender Land” and “Ordinary Grace” – Part 2: Disabilities and Abilities

Welcome back if you have read part 1, and welcome if you have not!  I will include two short summaries[i] of the books below in the footnotes, if needed.  In this series, I am focusing 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.  Today, the comparison will be on the use of characters with disabilities and special abilities in his books and how these characters add to the telling of the tales. 

First, in the novel, “This Tender Land,” Odie’s best friend, Mose, plays a pivotal role in the story.  His inability to hear causes him to speak infrequently and use sign language.  His beautiful ability to sign and communicate eloquently through signing is a great gift in the face of the disability he has.  Often, the author emphasizes how well he signs and how it is so beautiful to watch.  It is a masterful emphasis that the author draws for the reader because Mose is the only Native American Indian friend in the bunch.  His tribe’s experience with oppression is that which would cause one to think this group is being silenced.  What an ingenious twist in the writing to have this particular character mute.  And yet, when he does communicate, he does so with great eloquence.  Making me question, is the author trying to say that even though these nations of Native American Indians were silenced by the white man, these peoples have eloquent wisdom to share if we would only listen?  Yes, I believe the answer is we should listen.

On the other hand, Emmy, the young girl in the group of runaways, has a supernatural ability to change the future.  This is a surreal and extraordinary part of the storyline that brings the whole novel up a level into another genre of fantasy.  It is not detrimental to the story, though.  This ability is beautiful for Emmy and her truly good natured soul.  She has the ability to help others, and she does so even though it takes so much out of her physically. 

Similarly, in the book, “Ordinary Grace,” there are two characters to focus on – Lise Brandt and Jake, Frank’s younger brother.  Lise is also deaf, like Mose.  However, her character is filled with anger, resentment and loneliness.  Unlike Mose, she has mental illness and does not really socialize.   Except that she connects in a kind and gentle way with Jake. 

Jake has both a disability (stutter) and a special ability (seeing others with grace).  I truly believe that in this novel, the author is taking another approach at communicating in an alternative way by having Lise’s disabilities show us the truth.  Here, Lise is the one who either doesn’t like the amount of time her brother is spending with Ariel, Jake and Frank’s sister, or Lise is the only one who knows (spoiler alert) that Ariel and Emil have had an illicit affair.  The only reckoning that needs further explanation (spoiler alert) is why Lise kills Ariel.  Is she mentally ill throughout the novel and beleaguered with having the disability of deafness?  It seems like so much to weigh down one character with in the end.  Why wouldn’t she have the ability to hear and speak?  Why was she chosen by the author?  Maybe he is just trying to underpin his theme of death and destruction during that summer while Frank and Jake are coming of age.  Maybe he is trying to say life is not fair to anyone even the killer.

On the other hand, Jake has a special connection with Lise.  It is fascinating that the author chooses Jake because he too has a disability in that he has had a terrible stutter for most of his life.  At the same time, he has always had a keen sense of people’s character, a strong connection with God, and an ability to communicate in a kind, gentle way with Lise while no one else is able to sooth her during her fits of rage and screaming after being touched.  What is incredible is that his special ability to see others in their true light is given through the grace of God.  The author is able to highlight this in the miracle that is the “ordinary grace” that he is able to speak up and give when his family needs it the most at the lunch following his sister Ariel’s funeral.  What beauty in that moment.  What incredible eloquence and fluency he was able to exude.  And following that moment, his stutter is gone.  I wonder if the author saw this as an opportunity to use a special ability from God to cure a disability?

In both books, the author has chosen to have two characters that are deaf and two characters with super abilities.  Why juxtapose these characters?  It definitely gives the reader a range to look to for how both characters with disabilities and those with super abilities can inform and deepen the story.  Overall, I find William Kent Krueger’s character choices to be eye-opening and expansive.  There should be more novels written with characters that defy the norm – both in ability and disability.  Why not have more perspectives to draw from and learn from?  I love that he sees the world differently from most authors and teaches us to see the world in a bigger way with each book he writes. 

© 2020 Megan Davia Mikhail

[i] “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.” Excerpted from the William Kent Kreuger website available at: “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?”

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