I picked up Leif Enger’s debut novel Peace Like a River four years ago and read about twenty-five percent of it before giving up, for reasons that I would not remember years later when coming across a rave review written by The Literate Man. Going back to the book, it seemed like something I should like, especially when you consider the fact that in that four-year interim I had met, fallen in love with, and married an asthmatic from the Midwest.
I also should have liked it because of my love for literature about wanderers. Books like Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer, A Walk in the Wood by Bill Bryson, and A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins have always captivated me, and what happens in Peace Like a River? A family packs up and starts driving around, looking for something, but not sure what they’ll do when they find it. Sounds perfect.
Peace Like a River is a first-person narrative told by the adult, no-longer-asthmatic, Reuben Land about what happened when he was an eleven-year old with terrible asthma: after a violent encounter between his father and some hooligans who were assaulting his brother’s girlfriend, Reuben brother kills said hooligans. Davy is arrested and put on trial for murder, but only after the public seems to forget that he had only shot said hooligans after they had broken into his house in the night. Reuben promptly destroys this defense, causing Davy to break out of jail and become… an outlaw! Reuben and his prolific little sister, Swede, love this thanks to their love of Western novels. Their father, an unacknowledged miracle worker, decides to pack his remaining family (oh yeah, mom walked out years before disappointed that her med student husband chose a career as a janitor) and start wandering around in the cold looking for Davy. Such a good idea.
You know when somebody’s telling you a story and constantly insists on reminding you about things that already happened, because clearly you weren’t paying attention, and then sprinkling the whole mess with a good dose of religious rhetoric, including but not limited to not-very-subtle allusions to The Pilgrim’s Progress, one of the dullest reads of all time, proving without a doubt that God exists and that you’re terribly ignorant if you don’t already acknowledge that fact but don’t worry because you clearly do now and it’s all good? If you like that sort of thing, you will love Peace Like a River. If not, you may vomit all over it.
It’s a nice little story I suppose, filled with hope and redemption and
murder on the high seas horses falling down slopes thanks to obnoxious little boys. Here’s the thing though: the two main characters (I say main because they are the people that Reuben idolizes and thus talks about the most) are completely improbable. Reuben’s father, a small-town, soft-spoken janitor, a cliché for a hero if I ever heard one, spends his time running around performing miracles that nobody seems to notice except Reuben himself (like inducing Reuben to breathe for the first time twelve minutes after birth, healing the ugly and mean superintendent who nevertheless continues to be mean just not ugly, cooking up a never-ending pot of soup when company calls), a skill which sadly leaves him when he meets and falls in love with a woman (damn Eve and all her daughters!). Given this, it’s no wonder that he’s father to Swede, a nine-year old who can produce perfectly metered and rhymed epic poetry as quickly and flawlessly as I can scratch my nose. The only two believable characters – Reuben and Davy – are given very little stage time except when Reuben babbles on about what a great big brother Davy is for giving him the rifle and letting him shoot his very first Canada goose, or how very terrible a person Reuben himself is but it’s okay because he admits it later and never mind how that poor man was crushed under his own horse thanks to Reuben’s attempt at being devious because he marries Sarah, the domestic/sex slave that Davy rescues, thus permanently setting her on a proper and virtuous path, because obviously the narrator has to marry somebody that’s already appeared in the book because otherwise there would be no closure. Or something.
I think Peace Like a River had a potential to be good, if the characters and events were more true-to-life and the narrator wasn’t quite so obnoxious. However, Enger didn’t seem to realize this and I’m left planning a trip to the book trader. Oh well. It happens. I’d also like to plan a trip to the Dakotas because Enger really did make it sound quite pretty and that vein of fire thing would be pretty cool if it actually exists so maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe.