First I read The TIme Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, and you can read what I thought about that book if you’re interested. Next, I read Time Lottery by Nancy Moser, and it erred in the opposite direction–much too preachy and full of predictable and not very interesting characters. Then, I decided to read Case Histories by Kate Atkinson since The LitBLog Co-op, a group of literary bloggers who are trying to encourage the reading of new and less noticed books, chose it for their first recommended book a few weeks ago. I respond to peer pressure as much as the next reader, so I really tried to like this book. I failed. The characters are not trite and predictable; they’re just not very likeable. I found maybe two characters in a book that was overfilled with characterization that I could identify with, root for, or even want to read more about. Private Detective Jackson Brodie is a seedy British ex-cop. He spends the book talking to people involved in the three sordid cases he’s working on at the same time, getting attacked (someone is trying to kill him), and having sex with or refusing to have sex with various of his clients. Oh, yes, he also has an eight year old daughter, Marlee, and an ex-wife who hates him. I can see why. I almost feel sorry for Jackson when his house is blown up and when he has dental miseries, but he squanders my sympathy by acting generally like a creep. Most of the other characters in the book are fairly creepy, too. There’s an ax-murderer, three abused and consequently borderline deranged unmarried sisters, and an overweight bereaved father. The last one, Theo, a father who can’t get over the murder of his favorite daughter, is one of the two likeable characters. But he’s not prominent enough in the story to make it worthwhile. The other character I was halfway interested in was a ex-druggie runaway girl with purple hair. Obviously, I was desperate by this time to find something that made this book worth reading. As usual, I finished it, but it really got worse instead of better.
So, a couple of days ago I was ready to head back to the nineteenth century. There are good authors back there whose books have not all been explored. Give me more Dickens, Thackeray, even George Eliot or Thomas Hardy. However, before I did a little time-traveling of my own, I decided to try a book recommended by Carmon at Buried Treasure and by several of her commenters. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger was like a oasis, like water to a drowning woman. (Sorry, that was one of my father-in-law’s favorite jokes.) No, truly, what an excellent story.
Peace Like a River tells the story of the Land family, father Jeremiah, two sons, Davy and Reuben, and a daughter, Swede. The children’s mother walked out on them long before the time of the novel. Reuben, eleven years old, tells the story. Davy is sixteen when the story starts, and Reuben looks up to his older brother even though the two of them are very different. The central salient fact of Reuben’s life is his asthma; Davy is the epitome of the strong older brother.
“Davy wanted life to be something you did on your own; the whole idea of a protective, fatherly God annoyed him. I would understand this better in years to come, but never subscribe to it, for I was weak and knew it. I hadn’t the strength or the instincts of my immigrant forbears. The weak must bank on mercy–without which, after all, I wouldn’t have lasted fifteen minutes.”
Of course, this statement of Reuben’s is reminiscent of Jesus’ saying to the Pharisees: “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) Not that Davy is a Pharisee; he’s more like a lost sheep, an exile, by his own choice, from grace. Reuben, because of his asthma, knows that it is only by the grace of God, by a miracle, that he is able to breathe in and out. When crisis comes to the Land family, it is Reuben who survives and lives a healthy life, and Davy who is lost.
The language in this novel is beautiful. The author, Leif Enger, worked for many years as a reporter and a producer for Minnesota Public Radio, and the poetic, yet sparkling clear, language in this his first novel is obviously the work of a fine craftsman of words. Examples:
“No grudge ever had a better nurse.”
“Since that fearful night, Dad had responded with an almost impossible work of belief. . . . He had laid up prayer as with a trowel. You know this is true, and if you don’t it is I the witness who am to blame.”
“Listening to Dad’s guitar, halting yet lovely in the search for phrasing, I thought: Fair is whatever God wants to do.”
This last quote gives one of the central themes of the book. God is. He has compassion on the weak, on those who know their need of Him. But He doesn’t always work in the way we want, doesn’t make the story turn out the way we want it to end, doesn’t always give us the miracle. Toward the end of Peace Like a River there’s a wonderfully written chapter in which the narrator describes heaven. The chapter seems to owe something to C.S. Lewis, but it’s as good an imaginative description as Lewis ever wrote himself. Finally, at the very end of the novel, Rueben tells the reader:
“I breathe deeply, and certainty enters into me like light, like a piece of science, and curious music seems to hum inside my fingers.
Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?
All I can do is say, Here’s how it went. Here’s what I saw.
I’ve been there and am going back.
Make of it what you will.”
Rueben is a witness as all Christians are. May I be as strong a witness in my weakness to God’s grace and mercy.