Peace Like A River
by Leif Enger
published by Atlantic Monthly Press
320 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Singing Like A River
Reviewed by David Abrams
Leif Enger's remarkable novel Peace Like a River quietly slipped into bookstores in September. Like the smart kid who sits at the back of the class and seldom speaks, it was very nearly overlooked during the brawling Franzen-Oprah hoopla. However, Peace Like a River is a book worthy of the loudest trumpet fanfare and showers of confetti available. Put this one right to the head of the class.
Enger takes the best of writers -- like John Irving, Tony Earley and J.D. Salinger -- then stakes his own territory to create a story about family, faith and fugitives that's as rich in language as it is plot. Enger -- who, along with his brother Lin has written a series of mysteries under the pseudonym L.L. Enger -- strikes me as someone who paid close attention to details as he was growing up. He was the kid you always see in the backyard flat on his stomach watching how the earthworm moves through grass; or the one who remembers how cake frosting clings to the spoon (in a "fist-sized gob," in case you've forgotten). Enger -- like Irving, Carson McCullers and Jean Shepherd before him -- makes the trip back to adolescence an easy and pleasant one. Reading this novel, you can practically smell that jar of white school paste you tasted on a dare back in third grade.
As long as we're tossing around Great Writer Names, let's add Harper Lee to that list as well. Peace Like a River bears more than just a passing resemblance to To Kill a Mockingbird. In both novels, parents are a deep and abiding mystery and childhood, which once seemed to stretch forever, is marked by self-awareness and a sense of closure. Few writers are able to discuss adolescence in such clear-eyed, yet rosy-with-nostalgia terms that will cause grown-up adults to nod so vigorously with recognition that their heads threaten to fall off their necks. Lee and now Enger have proved themselves worthy of the task. "I remember it as October days are always remembered," writes Engers, "cloudless, maple-flavored, the air gold and so clean it quivers."
The novel, set in the early 1960s, is narrated by 11-year-old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy living in a motherless family whose tender circle is about to be broken by the oldest son. When 17-year-old Davy commits a crime of passion and becomes a fugitive, Reuben, his father Jeremiah and his younger sister Swede set out from Minnesota to follow Davy's trail across the northern United States. As the family travels in their Airstream trailer and draws closer to Davy, events turn increasingly miraculous, fueled by the elder Land's belief that he's got a direct connection to God.
The novel opens with Reuben's birth, which nearly turned into his death as his lungs "refused to kick in" for the first 12 minutes. While the doctor sadly shakes his head, Jeremiah grabs the clay-colored infant and commands it to live: "Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe." Like his namesake, Jeremiah Land is larger-than-life and fills the entire "land" of the novel with his Old Testament presence.
By the same token, Enger fills the nooks and crannies of every paragraph with Biblical language without an ounce of condescension. Faith and miracles crowd each page, dancing like the proverbial angels on a head of a pin. Characters literally walk on air, a pot of soup replenishes itself in loaves-and-fishes fashion, bodies are healed, and, without spoiling too much, I can tell you that there's a vision of heaven so achingly beautiful that I'm ready to buy a ticket today.
Early in the story, Reuben writes:
Real miracles bother people. 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 earth. My sister Swede, who often sees the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed -- though ignoring them will change you also.
Over the course of the Land family's journey west, there are a lot of miracles and plenty of changes, just as we've come to expect in the best of coming-of-age novels. The adults are seen at the periphery of the frame and it's Reuben and Swede, with their obsession for cowboys and vigilantes, who remain most clearly in focus. Peace Like a River plumbs the depths of childhood with its innocence and blurred optimism.
The real strength of Enger's book lies in the voice of our young asthmatic guide. Reuben Land is one of the most engaging narrators -- young or old -- to take control of a book's pages in a long time. He's funny, endearing and a fierce champion for his family, no matter how wrong their actions are. It's hard not to be swept away by Enger's prose.
The novel rises steadily to an unexpected and shattering climax which is sure to leave readers gasping for air in the last 15 pages. Unlike Reuben's condition, it does not wheeze. It sings. Oh my, how this book sings. | December 2001
David Abrams has written for Esquire, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.