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A good book can capture your imagination and wonder. But for a Minnesotan, there is one book that will change the way you look at Minnesota. This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger brought readers on a journey into Minnesota’s past.
The life of a drifter wasn’t always easy, and there was a lot of prejudice, but this was the first book I read that captured so much of Minnesota’s unknown past.
This Tender Land Book Summary
This Tender Land takes place in Lincon MN, and the Lincoln School for Native American Children. It’s a fabulous novel about the great depression area. But it was based on the town of Pipestone and the Pipestone Indian Training School.
After a series of different events, four kids decide to jump in a canoe paddling the Gilead River, to the Minnesota River and eventually to the Mississippi River in hopes of finding their home in St Louis MO.
They meet all kinds of people, from traveling faith healers to displaced families. It has a very Tom Sawyer Huckleberry Finn romance to it.
When I was looking through new book options from my Book of the Month Book Club Subscription, I came across this read. It looked right up my alley. One thing I didn’t expect was how well the author knew Minnesota.
Krueger wasn’t a MN Native but did spend a lot of time in the area researching the book. He even claimed to have done a lot of writing in Caribou Coffee stores. From reading it, you wouldn’t know it was a piece of historical fiction.
Caution Spoilers Ahead. While I don’t go into details about the characters in the book and their journey, I do talk about where they have gone.
This Tender Land and the Events Behind the Story
This isn’t a traditional book review. Instead, I decided to take a look at the history behind the book and what inspired some of the events they stumbled upon.
Pipestone Indian School
This Tender Land is broken out into different sections as they travel through Minnesota. Starting in Lincon aka, Pipestone Minnesota.
The kids went to the Lincoln School, which is actually the Pipestone Indian School. These sprung up all around the United States designed to ‘assimilate Indian youth into mainstream American culture’.
In addition to the frustration from parents about having their kids taken away, the school was also built on reservation land, illegally. It took 25 years for the local tribe to get compensation for their land.
After being compensated for the land, they had to cede control over the Quarry to the National Parks Service. Now whenever they want to get rocks, they had to get approval from the school’s superintendent.
Today the school no longer stands. The superintendent’s house was preserved. It’s located at Minnesota West Community College on N. Hiawatha Ave. The quarry is still being mined today.
The National Parks Service manages the land. You can take a walk through the quarry. There are many rock formations and even a waterfall. Visiting Pipestone National Monument is free to visit.
For more on Pipestone, make sure to check out: Visiting Pipestone National Monument: What to Expect
You can also find out more about what life was like in those schools by reading: Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928
Mankato – Tribute to the 38
One of the stops the travelers make is to Mankato MN. It’s not the modern-day Mankato at all, but actually, a subset called Hooversville. In the 1920’s Hooversville popped up in all major towns.
They were drifter communities for those down on their luck. Having spent some time there, the kids stumble onto a memorial for the 38 hanged Native Americans. It was the largest mass hanging in America.
The cause of the hanging
The event started During the US-Dakota War of 1862. Throughout MN’s western landscape, you’ll find mention of this tragedy. There is a whole lot to what started the war, but to put it as simply as possible, the US Government had created a treaty with the Native Americans.
They had an area to live in and it was managed by an Agent. The agent was supposed to be a liaison and make sure their needs were met. After a drought and other events left the Native Americans started they went to the Agent for help.
Unable to get the help they needed, they became frustrated, burned down the agent’s home, took food, and then started to continue along the western side of Minnesota.
At the end of the war there were 392 prisoners were quickly tried and 303 were sentenced to death. President Lincoln later pardoned all but 38 men. On December 26, 1962, these men were simultaneously hung in a custom-made scuffling. It was the largest mass execution in American History.
If you visit many of the state parks in Western MN, you’ll find they are on the sites of historical events around the event. You can learn more by visiting them about the innocent lives lost on both sides.
Upper Sioux Agency State Park
For further reading on the conflict check out: The Dakota War of 1862: Minnesota’s Other Civil War.
*Or use your local library card and see if they have a book on the conflict.
The original moment was removed in 1971 and even disappeared from storage. In its place at the nearby Reconciliation Park is a limestone carved Bison, along with the names of the men that died. It’s a much better tribute to the events.
I’ve been to Mankato a bunch of times in the past few years checking out their downtown and Minneopa State Park. I’ve been to the area where Hooserville once was. I knew about Reconciliation Park and what happened there.
As I’ve traveled more around Southern MN, I keep running into events that led up to this culmination, including Fort Ridgley where Dakota was first imprisoned. I’m not proud of this part of Minnesota’s past. It’s probably why I have avoided it.
St Paul’s West Side Flats
The last stop in Minnesota is at St. Paul. The story follows along to where the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers meet at Fort Snelling State Park.
They even glance over at the fort that still stands today before continuing on to St. Paul before making it to the Fats.
During the 1920s the culture of St. Paul was greatly different. Ostrizied communities of people were forced to live in the slums. When they ventured out they would even have to change their names in order to hide their heritage.
I learned about this some on the Gangster Tour of St. Paul I took a few years back and even visited some of these locations.
Each spring the homes would experience flooding but it didn’t stop them from living there, it was just a part of life.
After surviving for over 100 years, in 1952 a devastating flood proved how valuable the community was. The city’s Port Authority announced the creation of Riverview Industrial Park and needed all the land located in the West Side Flats.
The home was purchased and by 1963 everyone had left the area. Today, the area has high ride condos and apartments on it. There is no evidence of its past.
Visiting the West Side Flats Today
On the other side of the park is Lilydale Regional Park. This was also inhibited by the community. The park is set in the valley of the Mississippi River. It’s easy to see why it was flooded so often.
If you want to get a feel for it yourself. Head over to the park and bring your bike. They have a great trail that runs along the river banks.
Hike near the river flats at Lilydale Regional Parks. There you can see remnants of an old brickyard that once stood.
Brickyard Hike in St Paul: History Comes Alive in Lilydale Regional Park
A Word of Caution
If you have an adventurous spirit like me, this book may encourage you to see more of Southern Minnesota. If you take this book more literally, you may be looking to retrace their steps in a canoe.
Or even do the impossible and be one of the 50 people that decide to Canoe the entire Mississippi River. Yep, I went down that rabbit hole and decided when the kids get old enough, I may grab one and give it a try.
After this part of the journey, the kids continue on. I’ll leave that part out so as to not completely spoil it for anyone.
If you’d like to Road Trip to the places mentioned in the book, plan a weekend and start in Pipestone. Spend a day there, before going to Mankato and then St Paul. It’s a great weekend trip!
Don’t forget to pickup up a copy
Don’t forget to pickup up a copy of the New York Times Best Seller
This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
If you like this book, also check out Ordinary Grace, also by William Kent Gruger which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel!