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Peace Like a River


Leif Enger

As part of the preparation for writing this review of Peace Like A River, the bestselling novel by Leif Enger published by Grove Press, I checked the information page in the front and was shocked to see a publication date of 2001. I’m not sure if my surprise was directed toward the age of the book, the speed with which the years fly by, or my uncertain memory — probably all three. One thing that I do know for certain about this book is Peace Like A River has become a classic tale to me, and I draw on its wisdom, humor and life-lessons frequently.

Peace Like A River is a stirring novel about a single father, his three children and their struggle to remain together in the face of a family catastrophe. The story centers on the Land family: the father, Jeremiah, and his sons, Davey and Reuben, and daughter, Swede. The family of four lives in rural Minnesota in the 1960’s. Reuben, who has asthma, is the main character in Peace Like A River, but Jeremiah also figures prominently. Jeremiah is a quiet, gentle, even passive man, who is a devout Christian. As young Reuben bears witness, Jeremiah occasionally performs miracles, some of which are unknown even to Jeremiah. One of the passages from Peace Like A River that I have come back to often is this definition of a miracle:

“Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave — now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth. My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed — though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.”

As in Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy about a family in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, all of the Land kin are unashamedly Christian. But unlike Robinson’s trilogy, the narrator of Peace Like A River is a youngster. Reuben, the second son, whose breathing problems are a fearful frustration to him and a constant worry to his family, is our guide throughout the story. From the very first pages of the book, where Jeremiah recites the episode of Reuben’s miraculous survival of a near-fatal birth experience, God’s presence and power in everyday life are established. Using a child’s perspective in Peace Like A River lends innocence to the difficult situations that the family encounters, and Enger employs the perspective of both Reuben and Swede to great advantage in the book.

Swede, the youngest and smartest member of the family, adores her older brother, Reuben, with whom she spends a lot of time since asthma keeps him close to home. Swede is a budding writer, and because of that an old typewriter that she received as a birthday gift is her prized possession. Additionally, Swede supplies a fair amount of the humor in the book.

Swede has family loyalty enough for all of them, too. Even for Davey, the firstborn and the most independent and rebellious of the children – the one who detaches himself from conversations when talk of a loving God comes up. In Peace Like A River, Davey cannot bear the affronts directed to his girlfriend and family by two high school bullies, and one night he takes justice into his own hands. As a result, Davey brings misery on his family by committing a fatal crime. The conflict that arises from this wrongdoing builds the momentum of the story, and drives it to its surprising conclusion. But there are a lot of surprises throughout Peace Like A River. Here is Swede’s startling plan of action when she realizes Davey may not win the court case related to his crime, and could be sent away from them to prison.

“We’re going to lose, Reuben,” Swede told me that night…She then said,

“We’ve got to break [Davey] out.”

I should have known it was coming.”Oh, Swede. Don’t now.”

She sat up in her sleeping bag. “We could do it — bust him out of [jail]. Really. Tonight!” She had hold of my shoulder. “I’m not kidding.”

“I know it.”

She was up padding around. “They’re going to convict him, Reuben — you see it same as I do. You want Davey in prison?”

A gust gnashed at the window. I said, ” We can’t even drive, Swede,” but it carried no water…

“We’ll wait until they’re asleep — take some…cookies — offer them to the guard, tell him we got to see Davey — when he turns to me you grab his gun,” and so on. It was one of those rare moments when I actually felt older than Swede. Seizing it, I told her to grow up. She went silent and fell to studying bookcases.”

Throughout Peace Like a River there are dozens of little vignettes that prove memorable long after one has finished reading the book. There is also an epic poem which Swede is writing about the cowboy Sunny Sundown that parallels the tragic happenings in Davey’s life:

They watched the horse come down the street; they watched the rider halt;

They watched him size them man by man, as if he knew each fault.

His clothes and hat were black as ink, his dancing mustang pale,

His eyes were blue and hard enough to make the sun turn tail.

He said, “You want to hang this man, I’ll give you each the same.

I don’t much like a mob,” said he, “and Sundown is my name.”

Behind the challenges, surprises, and tender accounts in Peace Like A River lies a significant question that deserves our attention: How do people, especially Christians, deal with life when a family member commits a heinous crime? How does one love a lawbreaker without appearing to approve of his/her actions? How should our communities, and our churches, respond to the crisis the family of an offender faces? These are perplexing questions with no ready solutions. A storyteller for whom external landscapes are as important as internal ones, Leif Enger leads the reader on a spirited journey with the Land family as they make their way through many tough questions and the mire of problems that Davey faces.

No matter how difficult the questions are in Peace Like A River one truth continues to be apparent throughout the book: there is no other power for good that can compare to the love of a family, except that of the sweeping, river-like love of a Heavenly Father – and that is a power worth trusting with your life.


Even though it could be viewed as a Young Adult novel, parents should be aware that there is violence throughout Peace Like A River.