Peace Like a River is a strange but pleasing book, containing echoes of the picaresque novel and the archetypal quest, with passing references to Homer, the Bible, and historical figures of the American West. The author immediately establishes a winning voice for his eleven-year-old narrator, Reuben Land, which alternates with the adult Reuben’s omniscient but equally relaxed voice. He is a perceptive character, although admittedly self-critical, “beyond my depth and knowing it, yet unable to shut up.” He reminded me of one of my favorite literary narrators, David Copperfield.
To begin with, Reuben was born “a little clay boy” with ominously swampy lungs, unable to draw breath until his father, Jeremiah, rushed into the hospital room and commanded him to breathe. Even though the infant was without oxygen for twelve minutes, he miraculously suffered no brain damage; but his lungs remain weak into adolescence. Ironically, while Reuben has watched his father walk on air and heal a man’s raw face with a single touch, his own asthma remains uncured. Jeremiah can only steam him with salt and baking soda or thump his back to loosen the congestion. Reuben fully believes he has survived such an inauspicious beginning in order to bear witness to his father’s unexplainable miracles, since “no miracle happens without a witness.” He does not use the word “miracle” lightly, for real miracles bother people. He is never certain whether his father prays for miracles or whether they just happen.
His father works as a school janitor in the small town of Roofing, Minnesota, and is plagued by frequent headaches. A mild man of conscience, he reads his Bible daily, silently, and without ostentation. A man of prayer and intense conversation with God, he at one point literally wrestles with the Almighty. Davy, Jeremiah’s older son, is in some respects already an adult at sixteen, but unfortunately he is hot-tempered and unlike his father, he prefers to act rather than wait. He is very protective of their little sister, known only as Swede, a precocious and endearing young girl. She is a widely read and literate child but blunt with the artlessness of childhood. A passionate fan of Western novels, Swede is in love with the legendary Old West. Her real-life hero is the young Teddy Roosevelt, who ranched in North Dakota before becoming president. Reuben, too, admires and envies Roosevelt for his triumph over asthma.
Two young thugs attack Swede and later provoke Davy, and when they break into his home with a baseball bat, Davy shoots them both. Although he is arrested and jailed for murder, he refuses to plead self-defense, insisting that he intended to shoot. Reacting to the scandal, the school superintendent decides to “scour that janitor’s teeth” by first humiliating Jeremiah and then publicly firing him in in front of a lunchroom full of children. At Davy’s trial, a reluctant Reuben testifies as an eyewitness to the shootings until, carried away by self-importance, he unintentionally strengthens the case against his brother. There is little hope that the jury will release Davy, who promptly breaks out of jail, escaping with a horse and a revolver. No one knows where he has gone.
On Christmas Eve they receive a mixed blessing—word that an acquaintance has died, bequeathing his brand new Airstream trailer to Jeremiah. After a friend in North Dakota reports that Davy has been seen, the Lands determine to find him. The rest of the story becomes a modern odyssey. They tow the shiny Airstream trailer with their old station wagon and the novel expands its mythic dimensions. A detective follows them across the Great Plains in bitter winter weather to a small city park, where a severe headache forces Jeremiah to camp overnight. . Well into the Badlands, a notorious area of bleak buttes and mesas in the western part of the state, they come to a farmhouse with two gasoline pumps in front and a propane tank. The self-reliant owner, Roxanna Cawley, greets them with a newborn goat in her arms. Earth mother and impressive cook, she soon offers them a place to stay the night. As it turns out Davy is holed up with another fugitive, Jape Waltzer, not too far away. The denouement of the story, however, yields some twists that were surprising for this reader.
Enger’s vivid imagery is an attractive feature of Peace Like a River. There are also Reuben's dreams and mythic legends. The book describes some of literature’ s most accurate and claustrophobic descriptions of severe asthma. As Reuben explains, “Sometimes when the breathing goes it goes like that—like smoke filling a closet. . . Your breaths are sips, couldn’t blow out the candle on a baby’s cake.” In lyrical passages, Enger evokes autumn and winter on the Great Plains (“skies so cold frost paisleyed the gunbarrels”). Here the land itself is always a presence, a sharp reminder of a power far beyond human limitations—immense sky, sweeping prairie, the cold, clean Dakota wind—even the boundless desolation of the fabled Badlands, where the ground is eternally on fire.
One might be tempted to allegorize this novel, for it could easily slide into abstraction: Jeremiah as the good Christian, a saint; Davy as the archetypal rebel, beloved even as he sins; the fugitive Jape Waltzer, who is always accompanied by the odor of sulfur, as the Devil. To limit the book in this way would be doing it a disservice, for its very human characters are beautifully drawn. While there are many motifs in Leif Enger's Peace like a River, three of them are consistent, unmistakable, and connected. The first motif is breathing, and the other two—miracles and dreams—At its center it revolves around the nature and power of love—divine, human, and brotherly love, perfect and imperfect—the love that binds this small family together.