Peace Like a River
Great Books for Families

by H. Wallace Goddard

Some books are impossible to describe effectively. They leave an indistinct sense of being enriched and challenged. Peace Like a River is just such a book. The plot is summarized in a Barnes and Noble review:

“Once in a great while, we encounter a novel in our voluminous reading that begs to be read aloud. Leif Enger’s debut, Peace Like a River, is one such work. His richly evocative novel, narrated by an asthmatic 11-year-old named Reuben Land, is the story of Reuben’s unusual family and their journey across the frozen Badlands of the Dakotas in search of his fugitive older brother. Charged with the murder of two locals who terrorized their family, Davy has fled, understanding that the scales of justice will not weigh in his favor. But Reuben, his father, Jeremiah — a man of faith so deep he has been known to produce miracles — and Reuben’s little sister, Swede, follow closely behind the fleeing Davy.”

Three things impressed me as I read the book. First, I loved the language. For example:

“Whan a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of earth” (p. 3).

” . . . the universal race children run toward the doubtful prize of maturity . . .” (p. 30).

“I heard the dry complaint of the kitchen floor . . .” (p. 48).

The language is breathtaking.

Second are the characters. The members of the Land family are as real and likeable as your favorite relatives. They are not spared pain. They wrestle with it in their own way and, in the process, invite us to reflect on our own struggles with pain and meaning.

Third is the plot. The story has more than its share of tragedy. I am no fan of tragedy for tragedy sake. Somehow the tragedies pass lightly while the miracles linger. Ultimately the miracles have greater heft than the tragedies.

I agree with the reviewer at Publisher’s Weekly: “This is a stunning debut novel, one that sneaks up on you like a whisper and warms you like a quilt in a North Dakota winter, a novel about faith, miracles and family that is, ultimately, miraculous.”

In recommending this book, I am not suggesting that it is suitable for reading with a young family. I recommend it for thoughtful adults who want to renew their appreciation for the struggles of life, the importance of family loyalty, and the miracles that flow through life experience.

Leif Enger (2001). Peace Like a River. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press.

2004 Meridian Magazine.  All Rights Reserved.