With apologies to my “Speaking of Books” listeners, I’m going to post here the text of some of my past podcast reviews (pending having time to come up with something new).
It’s my belief that into every life a little really good fiction should fall. By really good fiction I mean books that do more than offer us a means of escaping for a few hours from our own troubles into someone else’s troubles, which are always so much more entertaining than our own. By really good books I mean those rare and wonderful treasures that have the ability to lift us straight out of earth and into heaven—books that stay with us and enrich our lives long after we’ve turned the final page. I’d like to share one such book with you today: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger.
If you’re a fiction lover, you may well be familiar with this book; it was a bestseller and won some impressive awards. If you’re skeptical about fiction, this book would be a great place to start. In fact, I’d say if you read only one contemporary novel in your life, it might as well be this one.
Peace Like a River may seem like a peculiar title for a novel that involves deathly illness, attempted rape, murder, fugitives from justice, and a family on the brink of ruin. But peace like a river is exactly what runs through this astounding novel.
The story is narrated by eleven-year-old Reuben Land in a compelling voice that combines a natural, seemingly naïve rhythm with the occasional startlingly perfect image or phrase. But Reuben’s father, Jeremiah, is the book’s true hero, and I would venture to say the greatest literary hero since Frodo Baggins. Neither warrior nor leader, Jeremiah is a man of prayer, a worker of quiet miracles, a genuine Protestant saint. His deep and sacrificial love for God and his three children brings the family through a bizarre series of trials and ultimately, quite literally, saves their lives.
The book begins with Jeremiah’s first miracle—the one that makes the book possible, because it saves Reuben’s life. Born with weak and soggy lungs, the tiny Reuben goes fateful minutes without taking a breath. The doctor has already given up on him when Jeremiah comes in and simply commands Reuben to breathe. He does.
Reuben continues to struggle for breath throughout his childhood, and this struggle keeps Jeremiah immersed in prayer. But the family has other trials as well. Jeremiah’s wife has left him and their three children years before the book opens, unable to fathom or accept his deliberate choice of poverty over the brilliant career for which he was headed when they married. Now Jeremiah works as a school janitor in a little 1960s prairie town, and the family gets by without a mother as best they can.
As the book begins, the oldest son, sixteen-year-old Davy—as fiery as his biblical namesake but without his saving grace—allows a quarrel with some schoolmates to escalate into deadly violence, and becomes a fugitive from the law. Bent on Davy’s redemption, Jeremiah eventually sets off with his younger children across the wilds of Wyoming in search of him.
The family’s saga is echoed in fictional verse by Reuben’s dauntless and fiercely devoted little sister, Swede, an accomplished cowboy poet at the age of nine. All the characters in Peace Like a River are larger than life, all as finely drawn and engaging as the Land family. Add to those characters a page-turning plot, an enthralling setting, Enger’s honed and ringing prose, and an ending that rivals any martyr’s life for drama and spiritual power, and you have a novel that is impossible either to put down or to forget.
Peace Like a River is truly a great American novel of epic proportions, embodying in Davy the spirit of the American renegade, and in Jeremiah the spirit of faith, courage, and love that just may have the power to redeem us all.