Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River is a delightful and discussable novel. The story of the Land family—
Jeremiah, Davy, Reuben, and Swede—is set in the early 60s in rural Minnesota and the North Dakota badlands.
The narrator is Reuben as an adult, reflecting back on a childhood marred by severe and unpredictable asthma. Much of the tension of young Reuben’s story is his nervous, sometimes resentful, monitoring of his dad’s miracles—always hoping for the big one: that his dad will cure him. Reuben knows his dad can perform miracles because he has witnessed them—curing an undeserving school superintendent of a skin condition, healing a flaw in Swede’s saddle, rendering the Land’s Airstream rig invisible to the Law. And ultimately, Jeremiah does cure his son’s asthma, by miraculously gifting Rueben with his own lungs—the occasion for this miracle, by the way, compliments of the evil, murderous Jape Waltzer.
While young Reuben wrestles with his asthma, his little sister Swede—sidekick and foil—is pounding out a kind of parallel saga of Sunny Sundown and the wicked Valdez on a manual typewriter, often while riding a saddle on a sawhorse in an Airstream trailer heading West in search of fugitive Davy. Sunny Sundown’s saga is told in charmingly awful heroic verse. And significantly, Swede can’t kill Valdez—though if ever a fictional villain deserved death it is he.
The novel explores very serious and weighty matters: life and death, good and evil, crime and punishment—all the while making us laugh at the most unlikely moments. For example, the gruesome hunting scene near the beginning of the story, rendered hysterical by Swede’s unwise enthusiasm to retrieve the downed goose.
We see the transformative power of love in Roxanna who, when we meet her, is graceless and plain. But when she and Jeremiah marry, she is graceful and beautiful. And as she is transformed by them, so are they transformed by her: Jeremiah to health and the children from motherless to abundantly mothered.
Enger’s characters, which are both types and utterly singular, push the boundaries of realism. But because they are so original and engaging, and because the pacing of the story is quick and the stakes are high, the reader cheerfully goes along for the ride. The oversize characters are easy to love, easy to despise, and easy to equivocate about. Jeremiah is Good. Almost like Christ. Jape Waltzer is Evil. Almost like Satan. And Davy, Reuben’s outlaw brother, is Morally Ambiguous. Almost like us.
Enger’s poses a kind of Yin and Yang dualism. We can’t have life without death, or good without evil, or joy without sadness, or doubt without miracles. Perhaps the reason Swede can’t kill Valdez is because Sunny Sundown can’t live without him. Jape Waltzer needs to murder Jeremiah so Reuben can receive the miracle. And we can’t bear the grimness of it all without being able to laugh.
— Sharelle Moranville