Peace Like A River by Leif Enger

Book cover of Book cover via Amazon

***Speaking of quick hits, here is one now***

I had always heard about Leif Enger’s Peace Like A River in such hallowed terms that I think I raised my expectations to high.  As I have noted before, expectations can often play a large role in how you react to, or interact with, a book (or a movie, album, etc.).  And when a blurb on the front says that the book “serves as a reminder of why we read fiction to begin with” then it is hard to not have high expectations.

In reaction to this, I feel like at times I read the book waiting for the wow factor to kick in instead of just enjoying it.  But after finishing it, I grew to appreciate it more.

For those out of the loop, here is a quick overview of the plot:

Reuben Land was born with no air in his lungs, and it was only when his father, Jeremiah, picked him up and commanded him to breathe that his lungs filled. Reuben struggles with debilitating asthma thenceforth, but he is a boy who knows firsthand that life is a gift, and also one who suspects that his father can overturn the laws of nature. When Reuben’s older brother, Davy, kills two marauders who have come to harm the family, the town is divided between those who see him as a hero and those who see him as a cold-blooded murderer. On the morning of the trial, Davy escapes from his cell, and when his family finds out they decide to go forth into the unknown in search of him. With Jeremiah — whose faith is the stuff of legend — at the helm, the family covers territory far more glorious than even the Badlands, where they search for Davy from their Airstream trailer.

A fast paced plot it is not, although it has suspense and even some action.  What carries this novel is the characters and the voice of the narrator Reuben.  One reviewer noted that this voice “perfectly captures the poetic, verbal stoicism of the northern Great Plains.”

What Enger also does well, is weave in elements of the fantastic and spiritual while keeping the story grounded in the lives of his characters and the region itself.  He writes of stoicism with a twinkle in his eye if that makes any sense.  The characters feel real and fully developed despite the far from mundane circumstances they find themselves in.

At first I thought this might be one of those stories labeled magical realism or some such, but I don’t really think the fantastical elements are really meant in that sense.  Instead, I think those aspects are simply part of the way Reuben views the world.  It is his perspective towards the world not a secret aspect of the world as we know it.  Sure, there are obviously supernatural aspects to the Christian faith but this is not what magical realism and other labels are usually pointing toward.

Once I got past some of my own misunderstandings and misperceptions I enjoyed the book for its portrait of a family struggling to survive and make sense of their lives together.  Enger captures how families with unique personalities and character traits interact; how they are so different and yet alike.  He also illustrates how the immagination sustains hope in the darkest of times.  This all sounds rather cliche but it comes across as fresh and artful in Enger’s prose.

Peace Like A River didn’t strike me in quite the way it did many other readers.  I enjoyed it, and would certainly recommend it to others, but it didn’t remind me why I read fiction in the first place.  I think PW describes my thoughts better when they said that the novel “sneaks up on you like a whisper and warms you like a quilt in a North Dakota winter.”

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Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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