Five motifs dominate this novel: the struggle with belief in God in the face of so much evil and pain in the world; the shameful legacy of mistreatment of Native Americans and disrespect for their culture by whites; the Great Depression of the 1930s and the evangelical response to it; and reflections of the main themes from both “The Odyssey” and “The Wizard of Oz.” If this sounds like a lot to pack into one story, it is, and moreover, there are other issues that receive cameos in the story. For the most part, Krueger manages the melange adeptly, although occasionally the author seems to be “kitchen sinking it” as publishers call over-plotting of stories.
Odie (short for Odysseus) O’Banion is in his eighties as the book begins, looking back at the summer of 1932 and the journey taken by him and his comrades, “The Vagabonds.” Like the Greek hero Odysseus after whom Odie is named, he was on a quest to get home. Traveling by water (in this case, by canoe on rivers), he and his companions encountered a number of challenges – including mortal threats, temptations, and struggles with the ire of the gods. Eventually, Odysseus reached his destination.
“The Wizard of Oz” comes into play as the four Vagabonds on the trip search for something lacking in their lives while encountering witches both good and bad. Odie wants a home. His older brother Albert wants to protect Odie. Their best friend Mose, a Sioux Indian who had his tongue cut out as a child, wants to know who he is. And Emmy Frost is searching for her role in life.
The four met at the Lincoln School for Native Americans near the Gilead River in Minnesota. Although the school is fictional, the horrific conditions described therein echo stories of abuse which actually occurred in such places. In an Author’s Note at the end of the book, Krueger writes:
“The history of our nation’s treatment of Native Americans is one of the saddest litanies of human cruelty imaginable. . . . Beginning in the 1870s and continuing until the mid-twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of Native children were forcibly removed from their families and sent to live in boarding schools far from their reservation homes. . . . Life in an Indian boarding school wasn’t just harsh, it was soul-crushing. . . . They were punished for speaking their native language. They were emotionally, physically, and sexually abused. . . . many of these schools functioned as a pipeline for free labor, offering up the children as field hands or domestic help for local citizens.”
Orphan brothers Odie and Albert were the only whites at the school. We don’t find out how and why they got there until revelations at the end of the story. The boys formed a bond with Mose, who was never able to communicate with anyone before Odie and Albert taught him the sign language they learned from their deaf mother. Emmy is the daughter of a widowed teacher at the school; Mrs. Frost was one of the nicer people among a fairly frightening group of abusive adults.
The tragedy that took the life of Mrs. Frost triggered a series of additional calamities that led Odie, Albert, Mose, and Emmy to take off by canoe and set out for the Mississippi River. But the cruel superintendent of the school had no intention of letting them escape, and the Vagabonds were often one step away from capture. This tension, as well as the people they met along the way and the adventures they had, changed their lives, and gave them a new awareness of what the world was like, who they were, and what their destinies would be.
Odie characterizes himself as a storyteller, and justifies some of the fantastical elements of his tale by arguing:
“Our eyes perceive so dimly, and our brains are so easily confused. Far better, I believe, to be like children and open ourselves to every beautiful possibility, for there is nothing our hearts can imagine that is not so.”
Evaluation: I am a fan of Krueger, but I wasn’t as enamored with this book as with some of his previous works. I appreciate that there are many issues that arouse a passionate response in him, but I thought the inclusion of so many of them in one story diluted the impact of each on the reader. Nevertheless, the saga is memorable in a number of ways, and would give book clubs a great deal to discuss.
Published by Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, 2019