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Krueger writes updated version of ‘Huckleberry Finn’

Posted on 17 September 2019 by Tesha Christensen

Local author of popular Cork O’Connor series considers ‘This Tender Land’ to be his best book


William Kent Krueger said that one thing he knew about this book when he started was that he wanted the kids to be on an epic journey, and the journey he thought most about was Homer’s “Odyssey.” (Photo by Jan Willms)

For years, local author William Kent Krueger has wanted to write an updated version of Huckleberry Finn.
“I knew it would be a story of kids on the river, but an updated version,” he said. “I knew when I wrote the story it would still be in the past, but I wasn’t sure just when.”
The multi-award winning author has spent the past three years researching and writing the book, while still working on his Cork O’Connor fiction series about an Irish and Ojibwe private investigator.
The result is “This Tender Land,” a story of four Minnesota orphans set in the Depression era, who flee from the Indian school they had been sent to and travel by canoe along the river, connecting along the way with others who are trying to survive hard times.
The book was published Sept. 3, and Krueger will have a full schedule of book signings in the Twin Cities area.

Crushing weight of
Krueger wrote “Ordinary Grace” in 2013, a novel about a young man, a small town and a murder, set in 1961. That book garnered him the prestigious Edgar award for best novel, and he contracted to write a second companion novel.
He said the idea for this second novel was to go more deeply into the effects of war on people of his father’s generation, the “Greatest Generation.” “It was an attempt to look at how war affected these men when they came back and tried to live ordinary lives. But it wasn’t the story I thought it would be, and over time my heart just wasn’t in it. I had a contractual deadline, but I wasn’t happy with the manuscript, and I ultimately spoke with my editor and publisher and asked them to pull it and not publish it. They were quite understanding, but reminded me I still owed them a companion novel.”
Krueger said that because “Ordinary Grace” had been so well received, there were extraordinary expectations for his next novel.
“They were crushing, and I was feeling the weight of those expectations the whole time. Once all that weight was off my shoulders, I felt free,” he explained. He put away his original manuscript and started over. “I could write what I wanted,” he said. And “This Tender Land” came into being.

How we remake ourselves in extreme need
“I wish I could tell you what ultimately led me to set the story in the Depression,” Krueger said. “I think one of the things I wanted to explore was how as human beings we react when we are in times of extreme need. The Depression just seemed the perfect backdrop to talk about how we respond to each other in those kinds of circumstances, and the truth is we respond in all kinds of ways.”
With their journey down the river, the kids in Krueger’s book see the broad spectrum of how people cope with harsh reality.
Krueger remembers hearing stories of the Depression from family members. His wife’s grandmother for a period of time lived with her family in an abandoned corn crib. Krueger’s father recalled how his dad was out of work, and families had to move in together. “My father came out of the Oklahoma Dustbowl, and stories of the Depression were certainly fresh in our parents’ minds.
“The Depression reshaped us as a nation,” Krueger said. “So much collapsed and disintegrated, and we had to come out of that and remake ourselves as people and as a nation. It was an epic period, and those children in the book are on an epic journey.”

Seeds of truth
Krueger is acclaimed for his strong characters and strong sense of place, yet he does not necessarily describe his characters in detail but lets the reader form an image in his or her mind.
“Unless something physical about a character is significant to his behavior or the story, I want people to imagine these characters in a way their imaginations create them,” he said. “What I shoot for is showing the weaknesses and strengths of a character.”
For “This Tender Land,” Krueger walked a lot of the land he thought his main characters might have walked. But for this book, he had to create a period of time that no longer exists and situations he has not experienced. For example, the Indian school and the Hooverville shanty towns he describes no longer exist, so he had to rely on extensive research.
“I tried to come up with specific telling details, and then I just imagined. There is a seed of truth in every story, and then the story grows. I tried to put as many seeds of truth in as I could. But it is just a story,” Krueger explained.
He said he always walks over the land he writes about, whether for his novels or for the 18 Cork O’Connor books he has written. “I don’t know how you can write about a place if you have not experienced it,” he said. “There is so much that is sensual and that you need to create movingly for a reader.”
“If you haven’t seen the color of a river, or smelled the river, or heard the sounds of a tree frog or watched the reflection of a bird across the river, how can you write about that? So I kayaked the river and walked the places Odie, the story’s narrator, walked. I climbed the hills.”
He also spent a lot of time in libraries and in Mankato, pored through the Archives of the Pipestone and the Gale Family History and read many old newspapers. When he writes his books, he said he does some research up front, some during the writing, and some at the end when he needs to go back and fill in any missing pieces.

Epic journey inspired by
Krueger said that one thing he knew about this book when he started was that he wanted the kids to be on an epic journey, and the journey he thought most about was Homer’s “Odyssey.” He said he began to think about places his characters could go that would mirror the places Odysseus journeyed. The orphans encounter One Eyed Jack, a flawed but redemptive loner who resembles the Cyclops. They meet Sister Eve, a modern version of Circe. Maybeth, similar to Calypso, tries to lure Odie off the river. The children come to a place that could be compared to the Land of the Lotus Eaters. And like Odysseus, Odie eventually finds his way home to Ithaca.
“With the Odyssey in mind, the story began to coalesce, and it was so much easier. I had all the elements in my mind, and I was able to put them together,” Krueger said.
He writes most of his books in a coffee shop, this time choosing the Caribou on Lexington. He is currently working on another Cork O’Connor book, “Lightning Strike,” which is a prequel to the others and tells of Cork’s boyhood and the people who shaped him into the man he became. “I’m having a ball with it,” Krueger said. He has two more O’Connor books contracted, but he does not see any end to the Cork O’Connor series at this point.
He also plans on writing another separate novel. “I am so grateful “Ordinary Grace” opened the door for me to be able to do the things I want,” Krueger said.
“I thought when I wrote that, it would be the best book I have ever written. I changed my mind. I think “This Tender Land” is better, and I love it just as much, if not more.
“It’s just a good story,” he continued. “It’s a very old-fashioned form of storytelling. I tried not to think of what audience to write for. I just wanted to write the kind of story that would appeal to me.”


Local book signings
by William Kent Krueger
Monday, Sept. 16, 7 p.m.
Barnes and Noble, Har Mar Mall

Friday, Sept. 20, Noon
Lake Country Booksellers
White Bear Lake

Saturday, Oct. 12
Twin Cities Book Festival
Minnesota State Fairgrounds
Saint Paul

Wednesday, Oct. 23, 7 p.m.
Subtext Books
Saint Paul

For a more complete schedule, go to  www.williamkentkrueger.com.