The Picaro Novel
I dredged up this term from the sea mud of my mind, remembering it from a college literature class. The term had been used to describe the novel, The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling, by Henry Fielding. Hour after hour I spent reading that REALLY long book, often falling asleep on the dorm lounge couch in the middle of the page.
While the people in the year 1749 made The History of Tom Jones a bestseller with record sales causing it to be printed in four different editions in the first year alone, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared it to be one of the “three most perfect plots in literature,” I was not so impressed.
But those literary terms come back to haunt you, and that word “Picaro” was sliding around, eel-like, in my memory. When I read William Kent Krueger’s This Tender Land, the term slithered up and bit me, reminding me that first impressions are not always what they seem.
Unlike the battle I waged with “The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling,” I breezed through This Tender Land, enjoying it immensely never once falling asleep out of boredom.
“Picaro” was the Spanish term for a rogue or a rascal. It originated with Lazarillo de Tormes in 1554. Lázaro, the main character, is an outsider, a man who wanders around the countryside observing the hypocrisy, cruelty, and deception of others.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Three hundred years after Lazarillo de Tormes, Mark Twain forever cemented the “Picaro” style novel in American literature with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Huck is an outcast, and he travels the Mississippi in a canoe with Jim, his older black friend. Along the way, Huck and Jim meet all kinds of characters and experience mishaps and adventures, exposing them to the best and the worst of humanity. As an outside observer, a “picaro,” Huck learns about the world and begins to understand its racist outlook.
Huck Finn’s adventures down the river is a classic journey, a “picaresque” novel to be sure. It’s no surprise that other authors have used this acknowledged masterpiece of American literature as a jumping-off point for other novels.
William Kent Krueger used Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a springboard for This Tender Land, a story of four lost and outcast children who journey in a canoe down Minnesota’s Gilead River toward the mighty Mississippi and a place where they can belong.
This Tender Land
Albert and Odie O’Banion are the only two white boys residing at the Lincoln Indian Training School, ending up at the school because their mother was dead and their moonshine-maker father had been shot. The O’Banion boys are true, “picaresque” characters, outcast and alien. In a passage that hurts your heart, Odie relates:
“Our father was less than a week dead. Our mother had passed away two years before that. We had no kin in Minnesota, no friends, no one who knew us or cared about us. We were the only white boys in a school for Indians. How could it get any worse?”
The O’Banion brothers’ best friend is Mose, an Indian boy who was found as a child on the side of the road with his tongue cut out and his parents dead. The fourth child is little Emmy Frost, the recently-orphaned daughter of the beloved teacher, Cora Frost.
The director of the school, nicknamed by the kids as The Black Witch, is corrupt, manipulative, and downright cruel and abusive to Odie. In addition to The Black Witch, there’s a perverted teacher named DiMarco and who is rumored to have done horrible things to some of the boys, a few who have never returned to the school. DiMarco threatens Odie, and his world is forever changed by the circumstances which follow.
Albert, Odie, Mose, and Emmy — like Lazarillo and Huck Finn before them — travel the countryside discovering hidden truths of people, both good and bad. Their adventures are a showcase of Americana and Depression-era society, including a deranged farmer who captures them and makes them work, a traveling revival show, hobos on the railway, and a kind family encamped in one of the many “Hoovervilles” scattered across the countryside.
Odie, the Storyteller and the Picaro
One of my favorite aspects of This Tender Land is that Odie, the storyteller, is narrating the events of that summer in 1932 from his perspective as a very old man. Any writer — or any lover of great books — will understand the underlying passion of Odie’s quote:
“In the beginning, after he labored over the heavens and the earth, the light and the dark, the land and sea and all living things that dwell therein, after he created man and woman and before he rested, I believe God gave us one final gift. Lest we forget the divine source of all that beauty, he gave us stories.”
William Kent Krueger sets up the action of the Picaro’s story beautifully through the words of Old Odie:
“The tale I’m going to tell is of a summer long ago. Of killing and kidnapping and children pursued by demons of a thousand names. There will be courage in this story and cowardice. There will be love and betrayal. And, of course, there will be hope. In the end, isn’t that what every good story is about?”
The wandering, outcast Picaro has gotten glimpses into souls that he would not have otherwise seen. He experiences things he would not have understood had he not been on a journey. But unlike many classic “Picaro” characters who experience the world and continue to watch aloof and unchanged, Odie doesn’t remain a rogue and rascal. Instead, he matures into a man who has been forever altered by his adventures. He says,
“…if you kill a man, you are changed forever. If that man comes back to life, you are transformed. I have witnessed this and other miracles with my own eyes. So, among the many pieces of wisdom life has offered me over all these years is this: Open yourself to every possibility, for there is nothing your heart can imagine that is not so.”
Perhaps the note of hope that Odie espouses is what makes this picaresque novel so enjoyable. He’s a lovable picaro who doesn’t stand apart from the action, but who inserts himself into it and feels it deeply, loving and hating in equal measure as the situation demands. Odie takes what he learns and is a better person because of his journey, regardless of the hardship that caused it.
William Kent Krueger
If you haven’t yet picked up a Krueger novel, don’t wait. He is the author of the popular, long-running Cork O’Connor mystery series, now eighteen books long. Ordinary Grace and This Tender Land are two bestselling stand-alone novels. His books feature the wildlands of Northern Minnesota, an assortment of characters, and always interesting plots.
Check out another one of William Kent Krueger's novels - my favorite - Ordinary Grace.
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