Peace Like a River is a strange but pleasing coming-of-age 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. Leif Enger 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.”
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.
Before the boy’s birth, Jeremiah was studying medicine on the G.I. Bill until he was snatched up by a tornado and deposited unharmed four miles away. This event changed his life. “Baptized by that tornado into a life of new ambitions,” he dropped his medical studies in favor of an intense spirituality. His wife, disappointed by his lack of initiative, later abandoned him and their three children. Now he works as a school janitor in the small town of Roofing, Minnesota, and is plagued by frequent, stunning 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 possesses an impatient nature. Unlike his father, he prefers to act rather than wait. An accomplished hunter and trapper, he affectionately labels his adoring brother “Natty Bumppo” (after James Fenimore Cooper’s famous marksman), following Reuben’s first successful hunt; and he is very protective of their little sister, known only as Swede. Swede is precocious and endearing, an enthusiastic but unorthodox cook who sometimes decorates her sugar cookies with frozen peas. She is a widely read and literate child but blunt with the artlessness of childhood. She asks good questions that do not have easy answers.
A passionate fan of Western novels, Swede is in love with the legendary Old West. Astride an old saddle Davy has given her for her ninth birthday, she types spirited poetry with overtones of Robert Service. The dashing Sunny Sundown, hero of her poems, is an upright lawman turned reluctant outlaw. 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.
During a school football game two local troublemakers, Israel Pinch and Tommy Basca, corner Davy’s girlfriend in the girls’ locker room and attempt to molest her. At his janitorial duties. Jeremiah overhears the struggle and chases them off. The girl later reports that his face was mysteriously “luminous” in the darkened room as he whacked the two boys with his broom handle. After the boys threaten his family, the feud escalates. The Lands find their front door covered with tar, which Jeremiah quickly cleans, hoping the matter will end there, but it does not.
While Jeremiah and Reuben attend an evening service at...
(The entire section is 1,894 words.)