Peace Like a River

by Leif Enger

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How does Reuben's severe asthma influence his character and coping mechanisms in Peace Like a River?

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Leif Enger's coming-of-age novel Peace Like a River is a story of many things, including miracles.  Reuben is the first and most significant miracle in the novel, and it is he who narrates this story. His asthma is not only part of who he is, it's also integral to this story.

After being without breath for twelve minutes, Reuben's father literally breathes life back into him.  There is no question that an experience like that will shape a life forever.  Questions about why he was saved or how his father seems to have miracles happen around him no doubt cause Reuben to both understand the importance of, and yet question, the spiritual realm. 

Physically, Reuben struggles with asthma during the entire course of the novel.  Ironically, though he was literally brought back to life  by a miracle; and, though his father performs miracles with startling regularity, Reuben remains afflicted with this debilitation.  It's something which connects him to his father, as Jeremiah must "treat" his symptoms with some regularity.  It's something which frightens Reuben, as well.  “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.”

He dreams of dying often--even dreams prophetically about his breathing and loss of breath in conjunction with the "bad guys" of this novel.  His asthma impacts the entire family, and it is one of the connecting forces throughout the work. 

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