THIS TENDER LAND is part Coming of Age, Huck Finn, Grapes of Wrath and Wizard of Oz. The narrative starts at the Lincoln (Minnesota) Training School in 1932—The Great Depression. WAIT! Before your mind goes ballistic with “Who wants to read something juvenile and depressing?” I assure you this book is not that! Yes, you’ll be sad about some of it, but you’ll be more fascinated and inspired by most of it. Even though the narrative begins in the Indian orphanage with some of the themes we’re all familiar with and very well depicted—Odie O’Banion, the white-yes, I said white—almost 13 year-old orphan/narrator makes friends with a rat while he’s confined (a typical punishment for any infraction of the rules set up by the Black Witch superintendent of the school) in the “quiet” room (actually the solitary confinement cell when the institution was a military fort).
After a tornado strikes, Odie, his brother Albert, Mose—a mute Indian orphan, and six-year old Emmy escape and start down the river in a canoe because there has been a murder and a robbery which they may be accused of being part of. And thus the adventures begin. On one of the stops as the river gets closer to joining the Mississippi River they attend a Faith Healer Sideshow for the free meal. After they watch the beautiful healer make a paralyzed man walk, they are persuaded to stay with her and work in the show.
Odie is fascinated by her because she insists that she does not heal people-their faith heals them. Is she for real? It’s complicated and the orphans are forced to get back into their canoe because The Black Witch arrives on the scene. She’s relentlessly pursuing them. They encounter many characters– from the Okie family who are on their way to Chicago but are stuck in a Hooverville camp because their truck has stopped running—can these orphans find a way to get them moving again? To the rag-tag River people in St. Paul who befriend them and offer them jobs and a home. Odie has his own ideas about what “Home” is, so he continues down the Mississippi to St. Louis in search of Aunt Julia—his mother’s sister and the only relative that they know of. When he finally finds Aunt Julia, she’s just a mystery to be solved. And read the book if you want the answer to that mystery.