Peace Like a River

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

If you are like most readers, one of the joys of reading is being swept away to another world for a few hours at a time.  Reading can be an escape from the mundane activities of our daily lives, and it can be a doorway through which we enter the heart and soul of people and places we might never experience in real life.  Some authors transport us through plot-driven stories of action and reaction.  Some authors invite us to dive into rivers of language that speak not just to our intellect, but to our own deepest souls.  And sometimes, an author achieves both in a single work-a book with an engaging plot that motivates us to keep reading, written in language so beautiful that it sometimes approaches poetry.

Such is the case with Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.  As one reviewer put it, this is a novel that almost begs to be read aloud (and in fact, I listened to much of it in audiobook form while on a road trip).  Peace Like a River tells the story of what happens to the Land family when the oldest son, Davy, murders two other teens in retribution for terrorizing his seven year old sister, Swede.  The narrator is 11 year old Ruben, the middle child, who tells the story as an adult, but with the same sensibility that you'd expect of a young boy growing up in the American heartland during the middle part of the 20th century.  After the two young hooligans who meet such a violent end are interrupted in the act of raping Davy's girlfriend by the Land family patriarch, Jeremiah, they begin to terrorize the family, kidnapping Swede and taking her on a joy ride, before dropping her off again as a warning.  When the two boys break into the family home, Davy takes matters into his own hands.  He is charged with murder, and during his trial manages to escape from the jail where he's being held.  Jeremiah decides to take the family cross-country during the bitter Dakotan winter to find his boy, and Ruben and Swede are along for the ride.

In a way, the road trip the family embarks on feels like a backwards Odyssey.  Instead of journeying home after a long war, Jeremiah and his children leave their home behind, searching for Davy and encountering magic and miracles along the way.  Jeremiah is a deeply religious man, and miracles seem to follow him wherever he goes.  Ruben recounts the many miraculous events associated with his father throughout the course of the novel, from his being saved from a tornado as a young man, to literally praying breath into Ruben's cold tiny body at the moment of his birth, to healing a man of his disfiguring facial boils.  Enger uses this plot device to create a sense of possibility throughout the novel.  There is no reason that Jeremiah should think he can find his fugitive son, but he drives across the frozen plains of the west as though a beacon is beckoning him forward.  Ruben and Swede both believe that their father is right in all things, as many young children do, and Swede especially clings to her father's belief that Davy can be found and brought to safety as a touchstone during what would be a scary and unsettling time for anyone, much less a seven year old girl. 

Enger's use of language is rich and full of poetic moments.  Swede, a precocious writer and lover of westerns, spends much of her time in the book writing about Sunny Sundown, the cowboy hero she creates, and her stories mirror much of what happens in the book.  Ruben freely admits that he is not the wordsmith that Swede is, but he certainly speaks with a certain down-home lyricism that is impossible not to be drawn into.  Through his careful descriptions and self-deprecating observations about himself and the events he is drawn into, we learn to love the characters in this novel as though they were in fact members of our own family.  Which makes the tragedy of the story have an even greater emotional impact than it might otherwise have held.  

Ordinarily I would not recommend the audiobook version of a novel over the ink-and-paper version, but Chad Lowe, who narrates the audiobook, does such an excellent job of embodying Ruben, and Enger's language deserves to be heard aloud.

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