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—are connected to that.
The narrator of the story is Reuben Land, and literally from birth, breathing has been a miracle for him. The opening line of the novel says this:
From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and air to fill them with.
Reuben was born but did not breathe for twelve minutes, and he was like a boy made of clay. During those twelve minutes, his father, Jeremiah, was outside pacing; when God speaks to him, he rushes into the hospital and commands his son to breathe.
“Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.”
And he does. Throughout the novel, Reuben struggles with asthma attacks and breathing. He describes them vividly for us
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.
It is an asthma attack on the first night the Lands meet Roxanna that begins to connect him to her, and it is often during his breathing episodes that Reuben has many of his rather prophetic dreams.
Jeremiah Land is a man who, when he was young, was lifted up by a tornado and carried away for miles, and that event transformed his life. He not only believes in miracles, he expects them. He has also taught his children to believe and expect them, though their faith is not as strong as his. Jeremiah talks often throughout the novel about many kinds of miracles and doubt. People are willing to accept the miracles of nature but not the miracles of God. For example, he says:
“We see a newborn moth unwrapping itself and announce, Look, children, a miracle! But let an irreversible wound be knit back to seamlessness? We won't even see it, though we look at it every day.”
He is fed up with people who act as if miracles are commonplace things rather than literal moves of God on man.
“Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it's been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week--a miracle, people say, as if they've been educated from greeting cards.”
It is always a bit of an irony throughout this novel that, though he got the breath of life through a miracle, Reuben struggles until the very end of the novel with his breathing. The final scene is a kind of miraculous transfer, as he receives his father’s healthy lungs and his asthma is cured. This transfer occurs in a vision, one of many Reuben experiences in his lifetime, all connected to breathing. In this scene, all three motifs are evident, ending the novel thematically the same way it began, a father providing his son the ability to breathe through a miracle.