Peace Like a River, Leif Enger

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Eleven-year old Reuben Land, a character in the 2001 book Peace Like a River, provides narration that is clear-eyed and insightful, yet retains the magic, wonder, and innocence of youth. I found it easy to entrust my imagination to the author’s clever method of telling the story through the sensibilities of a pre-teen boy. An author with lesser skill would have either made the boy too smart-alecky for his own good or impossibly cute.

As it is written, the character is believable and real.

The novel employs the wide open spaces of the Minnesota countryside and rugged terrain of the North Dakota Badlands as a backdrop for its colorful tapestry. Set in the early 1960s, author Leif Enger uses diverse elements including Old Testament and Old West allusions and literary/historical references—often accented by miracles—to tell a tale which highlights eternal truth.

As with many stories that contain elements of fantasy, it’s easy to find unmitigated joy in the unexpected mining of tiny truth nuggets hidden in the rubble of the narrative. When I happen upon a vivid and compelling truth—whether or not actually intended by the author—like the power of an atom bomb which belies its size, it detonates waves of pleasure which resonate like massive ripples in a small mountain stream. You will discover many such moments in Peace Like a River.

Without succumbing to cartoonish hyperbole or explicit moralizing, Enger uses compelling characters and masterful prose to craft a story which is both familiar and mysterious. Like a well worn path, I found values that were inspirational, comfortable, and warm as my favorite pair of gloves. And yet, despite moments of recognition, I was also intrigued and jarred by so many strange twists and turns. Like a fountain drink of living water, this story refreshed and fulfilled a deep hole, but left me craving more. Of this great novel, it’s equally true to say that I’ve seen it before and I’ve never seen it before.

Peace Like a River is a novel which contains deep sadness, pain, and lost innocence. Despite that, I found it dripping with loyalty, peace, faith, joy, and extraordinary love. As the novel ebbs and flows—I was vividly reminded once again that good is better than evil, the truth is better than a lie, and that life is better than death.


20 Comments

  1. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    I have to chime in on this.

    My buddy Gabe Scott (the multi-instrumentalist who used to travel with me and now travels mainly with Bebo Norman) is not a big reader. For the five years I traveled with him, he had maybe finished two books that I knew of, and used them mainly as a means of falling asleep.

    So when he told me that Peace Like a River was a book I’d love, I only halfway believed him. It took about two years and about fifteen other people recommending it before I ever gave it a shot. Part of the problem is that the cover doesn’t at all capture the feel of the book. If any book deserves to be called a modern classic, this one does, and the cover doesn’t communicate that at all. But, you can’t judge a book by its cover. (That’s right, I just said that.)

    I finished it on the plane coming back to the U.S. from Sweden. I read the last chapter, stared out the window for fifteen minutes or so, then re-read the ending of the book. That’s when I cried.

    When I got home I called Gabe and apologized. I still pull the book down and thumb through it to re-read certain passages, and the only other book that I do that consistently with is the Lord of the Rings.

  2. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    I, too, love PEACE LIKE A RIVER. But I thought the ending was the least successful part of the book. Unfortunately, I don’t have the book in front of me, and I don’t remember the details, so I’m hoping somebody will jump in on my side and help out.

    [THERE BE SPOILERS HERE. STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T ALREADY KNOW (OR DON’T WANT TO KNOW) WHAT HAPPENS AT THE END]

    Heaven is a hard, hard thing to write about. I can’t think of another piece of realistic fiction in which somebody actually goes to heaven. There are visions of heaven (Flannery O’Connor’s story about the woman in the doctor’s waiting room comes to mind), and of course CS Lewis’s fantasies treat of heaven. I don’t mean to suggest that heaven is an inappropriate topic for realistic fiction. But there was something about the way Enger wrote about heaven that didn’t sit right with me.

    If I remember correctly (and I may not…again, I’m hoping somebody else will jump in here), it seems as if Enger’s heaven was too easy an answer. The book shows people of faith struggling through what appear to be impossible situations. That struggle seems very authentic, and the author refuses to give us easy answers. He lets the characters (and the reader) sit in real pain, real confusion: every day with Jesus is decidedly not sweeter than the day before…but it doesn’t have to be.

    Then the character goes to heaven, and everything is all right. As a Christian, I do believe that heaven makes everything all right in the end. For a Christian, “after all” may be the sweetest words in the language. But PEACE LIKE A RIVER made me wonder if heaven is beyond the scope of fiction.

    There, that ought to start at least a little bit of controversy.

  3. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    I’m pulling out the gloves. Jeremiah Land, the father in the book, dies at the end. (If that’s not a spoiler I don’t know what is.) Reuben gets a glimpse of his world-weary, heartbroken, faithful father dipping his feet in a golden river that carries him away to a shining city. It’s the only scene that I remember in the book where his father isn’t tired and broken, and I ached for Jeremiah Land. I wanted so badly for him to get in that river and let his faith become sight that the ending satisfied me and piqued my own ache. I didn’t see it as an easy way out. The father was murdered. Reuben survived, was healed of his sickness, and caught a vision of heaven that allowed him to understand his father (and his father’s faith) for the first time.

    I read the book at least two years ago, and may be askew on a few facts. But that’s what I remember of my impression of it. I’ll also say that it wasn’t until I went back and re-read the ending that I got all weepy, so maybe on the first read it isn’t as satisfying of an ending.

    Besides the story itself, the prose is excellent. I took notes on Enger’s use of colorful (and sometimes made-up) words–words like “muzzy”, “racketous”, “nettly”, “screel” and “whuffed”. There’s a good interview with the author here.

    Controversy is good.

  4. Pete Peterson

    I’m with the Proprietor on this one. What was most powerful about the ending for me was that Rueben was there to see it, to see his Dad whole and running and joyous and then to know that he couldn’t follow, not yet, to know that his father loved him so much he had to tell him goodbye and send him back to a life of pain, hurt and bereavement because that’s what we’ve all got to endure before we wear the crown. That ending left me breathless.

    The book also features multiple uses of the word “beeves” as well as “clandestine jellies”.

  5. Jonathan Rogers

    @jonathanrogers

    I agree that controversy is good. Unfortunately, I just don’t have what it takes to continue this particular controversy. I don’t remember enough about the book to talk about it in any detail. Mostly I remember being vaguely dissatisfied with the ending–and mostly because I had been so thoroughly satisfied with the rest of the book. AP, since the only person to jump into the fray was YOUR brother, on YOUR side (real fair) we may have to postpone our grudge match.

  6. Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    My brother could beat up your brother.

    Seriously, it won’t be long before Pete’s opposing me too. (But until that happens, watch out for we Petersons. Arrrr.)
    AP

  7. Theresa Croteau

    This was the first Christian Fictional book I ever read back when I started walking with the Lord a few years ago. Honestly, that is what I remember about it the most. It makes me chuckle to see it here, because it was at a time when I didnt realize (was blinded to) all that is truly alive around us (especially the living word). It was also the same season in my life that a dear friend of ours, (my husband and I) very intrumental in our early walk said, “Hey I am listening to my brother’s latest album it is amazing!” Of course, his brother happened to be Andrew Peterson. So, this whole thread reminds me of those days and although I as well can’t even remember enough to debate it (although I much enjoy my debates with Pete) I can’t help but me amazed at the details of how fitting it is in my life to see it in the Rabbit Room. Thanks for posting it Curt McLey.

  8. The Rabbit Room

    […] books that we think you’ll love. I just found a few copies of Gilead, Mere Christianity, and Peace Like a River, all books that come highly recommended by the Rabbit Room […]

  9. The Rabbit Room

    […] may remember Enger as the author of Peace Like a River, one of the first books discussed here in the Rabbit Room. I haven’t read the new one yet, but it’s next on my list. Actually, […]

  10. The Rabbit Room

    […] to spoil the book but those looking for explicit Christian themes and a big emotional finale, as in Peace Like a River, might be disappointed. Those things are still here but they’re buried deeper, nestled down […]

  11. aurorajade

    Gee, I didn’t read all the responses but I didn’t have the same take as others. I saw the father as racing to insert himself for Reuben in that space between heaven and earth.. the void that one must travel to reach heaven. Many describe it as a peaceful river flowing toward white lights, etc. (My own mother experienced that in childbirth.) And, if I recall Jeremiah heard as he lay on the ground that Reuben was also injured and non responsive. The dr. later said the father should have lived and the son shouldn’t have based on their wounds. I believe it was the ultimate sacrifice for his son… a second resurrection so to speak, to repeat the saving at Reuben’s birth. And, I didn’t question his excellent health following the episode. My father often told of his brother literally crawling up to bed with a severe asthma attack which noone expected him to recover from. The next day he arose and never seem bothered with that affliction again. Strange how that can happen.
    And, I agree with whoever said the important thing was Reuben got to see his father’s spirited and jubilant sprint toward the river. He would find the loss easier to bear than it might have been. At least that was my perspective. Just had to jump in for what it’s worth. I loved this book. I think the prose with all its references was the best I’ve read in years. Brilliant really. (imho)

  12. aurorajade

    PS: The only part that seemed a bit .. “convenient” for me was the connection with Sarah. But I know stranger things happen. However they had the shared history of a broken life prior to the shattering scene outside their home that day. There I’m done. aj

  13. Roger Wagner

    I know I’m getting into this thread WAY late, but I just finished listening to a reading of Peace LIke a River by Chad Lowe, which I picked up in a used bookstore on vacation this summer. I’ve had the book on my shelf for several years waiting to get to it, alas! (BTW, if you like to listen to books, Mr. Lowe’s narration is excellent. I think he gets the tone of the narrative just right.)

    There is so much about this glorious novel, where to begin?

    In the first place, as to “spoilers.” Don’t worry about knowing the ending in advance. Doesn’t matter. This is a book where “getting there” is way more than half the pleasure. That’s why (like every great novel) it will get better with every reading. As was mentioned in the original review, the “voice” of the narrator, and the author’s rich language of the writing is worth reading the book about three times all by itself. Every page contains wonderful expressions of truths commonplace and profound.

    Secondly, to discover a male character like Jeremiah Land in modern American fiction is a “miracle” by itself. To find a sympathetic, but not sentimental portrait of a father, is a double-miracle. And to read about a character whose faith is so real, and so understated is…well, you know. One of my favorite lines from the book is the observation that Mr. Land’s “early moments with King James were non-negotiable.” What a way to describe meaningful daily devotions!

    Third, to write convincingly about the realities of our faith without becoming preachy is a real gift. That even secular critics found PLAR conpelling (if not convincing?) is an indication of Enger’s skill and conviction.

    Finally (not to go on and on), I was struck that the climaxing vision of “heaven” was so underplayed (like everything in the book), assuming you’ve got the nerve to even attempt such a thing. It was not “heaven” like many envision it — a vaguely “spiritual” place where all is well (more like the Greeks than the Jews). It is (as Enger puts it) “another country” — new and different, but at the same time gloriously LIKE our present experience of f God’s good creation (butterflies and fruit trees!!). In this, Enger’s vision is much like that of C.S. Lewis (“Is it fair to say that country is more real than ours?” Reuben asks himself). And while Enger gave hints of more, they will mean more to those who know their Bible that the casual reader. He did not (IMO) go too far. (Another wonderful line. Reuben’s father tells him, “Soon, which makes better sense under the rules of that country than ours.”)

    “Make of it what you will.”

  14. Travis Stewart

    This is one of my all-time favorites, if nothing else for the wonderful prose. There were sections I would re-read just to let the words roll off of my tongue. It’s been quite some time since I read it but the last chapter stands out to me as a moving image of heaven (and I’m pretty picky about heaven).

    His next book So Brave, Young and Handsome is also a well-written journey of two men struggling with their pasts. Not as good his first book but a book worth reading.

  15. Jim A

    Just finished this book last night and it was unbelievable. Instant classic. absolutely crazy good.
    Hard to describe but if pressed I’d say it was a cross between “The Green Mile”, “To Kill A Mockingbird”, and “The Great Divorce” with a lot of Louise Lamour throughout. It was at times laugh out loud funny and at others lock the door weepy.

    Your simply must read this book.

  16. Marianne

    Just discovered that one of my most favorite music artists (Andrew Peterson) has met one of my most favorite books (PLAR). This makes me very happy. I have read this book at least three times, and I don’t usually read books again. Love this book!

  17. Esther O'Reilly

    I just finished this myself and wanted to raise a different question about the ending.

    HERE BE SPOILERS!

    After the final shootout, what are we to conclude about Davy’s flight/disappearance? Is Waltzer supposed to have taken him hostage, or did he rather coldly drive off and abandon his family? The former isn’t confirmed anywhere, but the latter seems incredibly out of character for Davy. This bugged me more than the heaven tourism. Thoughts?

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