Semicolon Review of Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Posted by Sherry on 10/21/2009 in Adult Fiction, General, Music and Hymns, Projects, Top 100 Hymn Project |

Reprint from May, 2005:

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?
No sir.
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.


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