Retaliation, obligation, miracles, escape fill `Peace Like a River’ |

Retaliation, obligation, miracles, escape fill `Peace Like a River’

Jessi Rochel

Peace Like a River; Leif Enger; Grove Press; 320 pages; $13

A family hovering on the brink of destruction; the father capable of miraculous feats, the son wanted for murder. Not exactly the average story line.

“Peace Like a River” seamlessly blends religious influences with childlike naivete and adult humor to produce a multi-tiered story. The implicit lines, hidden meanings, and concealed truths make it a novel of staggering brilliance.

Leif Enger tells his fictional tale through the persona of Reuben Land, an asthmatic 11-year-old boy growing up in the Midwest during the 1960s. When Reuben’s older brother, Davy, commits a double homicide, and flees rural Roofing, Minn., divine providence steps in and the family follows his fugitive trail.

A touch of Western, a dash of biblical journey, and a generous sprinkling of hope culminate in a tantalizing tale of moral intrigue and good old-fashioned adventure.

Reuben opens his story explaining the miraculous circumstances surrounding his birth. For the first 12 minutes of his life, his lungs would not function, and he didn’t take a single breath. But his father worked tirelessly and valiantly, commanding “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.”

According to Reuben some 11 years later, that was his father’s first miracle. And more were to follow. Some appear probable; some test the very will of skepticism and suspended disbelief. “Peace Like a River” is a testament to faith, whatever that faith may be in, and tests the faith of the reader.

An incident in the school between Reuben’s janitorial father and two of the town’s most notorious bullies begins a ripple effect of troubles. Retaliation leads to an unforgivable situation with Reuben’s younger sister, Swede.

Davy, the eldest brother, seizes control of the escalating problem and ends it with his Winchester rifle. Certain to be condemned to a life in prison after Reuben’s unintentionally damning testimony, Davy escapes.

“Peace Like a River” explores the darker side of familial obligation. A struggling, single-parent family is rent apart by the heinous, albeit, slightly justifiable deed of a 16-year-old boy. Though the family humbly searches for their missing member, what will happen when and if they find him?

The recurring biblical references offer the story a rich ambiance of religious influence. Swede’s obsession with the West wrangles in outlaw excitement and entertainment; the installments to her “Sunny Sundown” series demonstrates her childish innocence mingled with adult talent. And collectively it leads to the nagging questions, Where is this going? What is going to happen? How will it all turn out?

The book takes some surprising turns, none quite as shocking as the end. It abandons the reader, leaving him puzzled and unsure. However, this story is a deep, complex work that can and should be evaluated and appreciated on many levels.

When Reuben explains miracles early on in the story, he is also clarifying the nature of the book itself. “Real miracles bother people,” he says, “like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in.”

Jessi Rochel is a senior at Roaring Fork High School

in Carbondale.

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