William Kent Krueger remembers listening intently as his teacher read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer aloud to the class. Later he read Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with a similar enthusiasm, intrigued by the young protagonist bravely navigating the Mississippi River.

Inspired by Twain’s tales, Krueger decided to write about young people, desperate to swap corruption for freedom, who embark on a turbulent river journey. The resulting standalone novel, This Tender Land (Atria, Sept.), combines outdoor exploits and a meditation on the human condition. Narrated by the not-quite-13-year-old Odie O’Banion, it details the loss of innocence among a motley quartet of orphans—Odie and his brother, Albert; their best friend, Moses; and a little girl named Emmy.

The novel is partly set at Lincoln School in Minnesota in 1932, an off-reservation boarding school for many Native American children who had been forcibly separated from their parents. The four run from the law and set out for St. Louis in a canoe. Their search for a home together suggests that “family is less about blood than the way we open our hearts,” says Krueger.

Although the story is set against the bleak backdrop of the Great Depression, Krueger says that he was determined to showcase the era’s unexpected penchant for kindness. “So many of us had parents who grew up in the Dust Bowl then, our mothers telling us stories about not turning away people who were hungry,” says Krueger, who was raised in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon. “Generosity during times of great privation, that’s the spirit of America I wanted to capture.”

Like Krueger’s Edgar Award–winning Ordinary Grace and the books in his Cork O’Connor mystery series, This Tender Land puts spirituality and the conflicting forces of faith and doubt front and center. “[Spirituality] has been an issue for me my whole life. I want to explore the spiritual journey in our lives,” he says. He also wants readers to share his deep attachment to his characters.

“I want to have readers fall in love with the characters, let them feel despair and possibility when they do,” Krueger says. “I want to say something about human nature and how we ought to respond to each other, what as a people I think we are capable of. I want to give readers the hope that we can be those people.”

Today, 2–3 p.m. William Kent Krueger will sign ARCs at the S&S booth (1838, 1839).