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Peace Like a River (Enger)

Peace Like a River 
Leif Enger, 2001
Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
312 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780802139252

Summary
Born with no air in his lungs, it was only when Reuben Land's father, Jeremiah, picked him up and commanded him to breathe that Reuben's lungs filled. Reuben struggles with debilitating asthma from then on, making him a boy who knows firsthand that life is a gift, and also one who suspects that his father is touched by God and can overturn the laws of nature.

The quiet 1960's midwestern life of the Lands is upended when Reuben's brother Davy kills two marauders who have come to harm the family. The morning of his sentencing, Davy—a hero to some, a cold-blooded murderer to others—escapes from his cell, and the Lands set out in search of him. Their journey is touched by serendipity and the kindness of strangers, and they cover territory far more extraordinary than even the Badlands where they search for Davy from their Airstream trailer.

Sprinkled with playful nods to Biblical tales, beloved classics such as Huckleberry Finn, the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the westerns of Zane Grey, Peace Like A River is at once a heroic quest, a tragedy, a love story, and a haunting meditation on the possibility of magic in the everyday world. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio 
Birth—1961
Where—Sauk Centre, Minnesota, USA
Education—Moorhead State University
Currently—lives near Aitkin, Minnesota


Since his teens, Leif Enger has wanted to write fiction. He worked as a reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio from 1984 until the sale of Peace Like a River to publisher Grove/Atlantic allowed him to take time off to write.

In the early 1990s, he and his older brother, Lin, writing under the pen name L.L. Enger, produced a series of mystery novels featuring a retired baseball player. Peace Like a River, published in 2001, has been described as "high-spirited and unflagging" and has received some notable acclaim in literary circles.

He is married and lives on a farm with his wife and two sons. (From Wikipedia.)



Book Reviews 
Set in the early 1960s, Enger's debut novel is narrated by eleven-year-old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy whose close-knit family is broken apart after the oldest son, Davy, commits a crime of passion and becomes a fugitive. Reuben, his father and younger sister become immersed in a series of mystical events as they follow Davy's trail across the northern United States. Enger's book is filled with biblical illusions and miracles crowd its pages like proverbial angels on the head of a pin; one curious scene features a pot of soup that replenishes itself in loaves-and-fishes fashion. The highlight of the book is its engaging narrator, Reuben Land: He's funny, endearing and committed to his family, no matter how wrong their actions.
David Abrams - Book Magazine


Dead for 10 minutes before his father orders him to breathe in the name of the living God, Reuben Land is living proof that the world is full of miracles. But it's the impassioned honesty of his quiet, measured narrative voice that gives weight and truth to the fantastic elements of this engrossing tale. From the vantage point of adulthood, Reuben tells how his father rescued his brother Davy's girlfriend from two attackers, how that led to Davy being jailed for murder and how, once Davy escapes and heads south for the Badlands of North Dakota, 12-year-old Reuben, his younger sister Swede and their janitor father light out after him. But the FBI is following Davy as well, and Reuben has a part to play in the finale of that chase, just as he had a part to play in his brother's trial. It's the kind of story that used to be material for ballads, and Enger twines in numerous references to the Old West, chiefly through the rhymed poetry Swede writes about a hero called Sunny Sundown. That the story is set in the early '60s in Minnesota gives it an archetypal feel, evoking a time when the possibility of getting lost in the country still existed. Enger has created a world of signs, where dead crows fall in a snowstorm and vagrants lie curled up in fields, in which everything is significant, everything has weight and comprehension is always fleeting. This is a stunning debut novel, one that sneaks up on you like a whisper and warms you like a quilt in a North Dakota winter, a novel about faith, miracles and family that is, ultimately, miraculous.
Publishers Weekly


(Audio Version.) The cover, though beautiful, seems better suited for a reissue of Robin Hood or Camelot. And the reader's claim to fame is his role as an HIV-positive artist on the TV series Life Goes On. So what makes this an great audiobook? Two things: careful, thoughtful writing by Enger and passionate, spirited reading by Lowe. This is a graceful, stirring first novel, with echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and classic Americana at its heart. Eleven-year-old Reuben Land lives a typically calm existence in a small Midwestern town; beyond having an extraordinary father (who performs quiet miracles), he's a pretty average boy. When two neighborhood bullies threaten his older brother, Davy, and his younger sister, Swede, life takes on a dark edge. The conflict escalates after Davy shoots the two boys dead, is in jail awaiting trial and escapes. Reuben, Swede and their widowed father take off in search of Davy, moving across the striking landscape of Minnesota and South Dakota. Their search ultimately leads them to make a very important decision, one that challenges their own morals and familial bonds. Enger's characters are exceptionally strong, and Lowe deftly portrays them: Swede's chutzpah, Reuben's reverence for his family, and their father's magic are all admirably expressed.
Publishers Weekly


Fair or not, Enger's first novel will inevitably be compared to the work of Garrison Keillor: both men are veterans of Minnesota Public Radio, and the book very much shares the spirit of Keillor's radio work and fiction, with its quiet, observant gaze capturing the beauty of simple things, related through wise and thoughtful characters—in this case, the Land family from North Dakota. Asthmatic youngster Reuben Land tells the admittedly shaggy-dog story of his older brother Davy, who shoots and kills two violent intruders as they break into the family's home; Davy is convicted but manages to flee. Both the Lands and the law follow in hot pursuit, but the family seems to have support from a higher power. Father Jeremiah himself has performed a miracle or two in his lifetime (walking on water, healing the afflicted with his touch, and the like). Biblical allusions abound, and fantastic things happen, such as the patriarch's four-mile tour via tornado. "Make of it what you will," says Reuben. A low-key charmer for literary collections. —Marc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA
Library Journal


Minnesotan Enger pulls out the stops in this readable albeit religiously correct debut about a family with a father who may be touched by God and a son by the Devil. Jeremiah Land's wife left him years ago, and now, in a midwestern town called Roofing, in 1962 or so, he's janitor at the local school and sole parent of chronically asthmatic Reuben, 11 and the tale's teller; his precocious sister Swede, only 9 and already an accomplished poet of western outlaw-romances; and Davy, who at 17 becomes a killer—though possibly a just one. Two town boys from the wrong side of the tracks have a grudge against custodian Jeremiah (he caught them in the girls' locker room) and, after vowing revenge (and briefly kidnapping Swede), they appear one night in the upstairs of the Land house, whereupon Davy (did he lure them there?) bravely and determinedly shoots them dead. There's a trial, a conviction—and then a jailbreak as Davy escapes, not to be seen for some months. Miraculous? Well, Reuben has seen his father walk on air ("Make of it what you will," he advises the reader), and now there's a miraculous meal (a pot of soup is bottomless), the miracle of the family's being left an Airstream trailer—even the miracle of Jeremiah being fired, leaving the family free to take to the road after Davy. The direction they go (toward the Badlands), how they avoid the police, what people they meet (including a future wife for Jeremiah), how they find handsome Davy—all depend on what may or may not constitute miracle, subtle or wondrous, including the suspenseful events leading to a last gunfight and the biggest miracle of all (preceded by a glimpse of heaven), all followed by certain rearrangements among the lives of mortals. Handsomely written, rich with the feel and flavor of the plains—and suited mainly for those whose yearnings are in the down-home, just-folks style of the godly.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions
1. As the novel begins—indeed, as the very life of this novel's narrator begins—a miracle happens. Describe it. How does it happen? Who accomplishes it? Begin your discussion of this book by recounting the major and minor miracles that occur throughout. What role do they play in Peace Like a River?

2. Born with a severe case of asthma, Reuben Land, our young hero and narrator, must often struggle to bring air into his lungs. Throughout the book, Reuben is preoccupied with his own breathing, and the act of breathing functions in this story as a metaphor for life itself. How does Reuben cope with his ailment, and how is his character influenced by it? Provide instances where breathing takes on special meaning in the narrative.

3. Consider the details of the double homicide committed by Davy, Reuben's older brother. Does Reuben see Davy as a murderer, or as one who acted in self-defense? Does he want Davy brought to justice, or does he think justice has already been served? What about the other main characters: how do they feel? And what about you, the reader? How was your impression of Davy—and of this novel—influenced by his actions? Discuss how the novel explores the idea of loyalty.

4. Peace Like a River is set mainly in rural Minnesota and the Badlands of North Dakota during the early 1960s. Like early American pioneers, or perhaps like mythic heroes, the Lands set out to rescue one of their own amidst the beauty and cruelty of the natural world. How does the Land family contend with this raw, uncivilized, and sometimes brutal landscape? Identify events or circumstances in which the novel's setting contributes to its elemental or mythic quality.

5. Swede, Reuben's imaginative, prolific, and precocious younger sister, creates an epic poem about a cowboy named Sunny Sundown. Talk about Sunny's ongoing saga as an ironic commentary on Reuben's larger narrative. What are the parallels?

6. Besides the Sunny Sundown text, several other outlaw tales, literary allusions, biblical legends, and historical asides are offered—by Swede or by Reuben himself. Identify a few of these stories-within-the-story, explaining how each enriches or influences the main narrative.

7. Discuss the character of Jeremiah Land, Reuben's father—and the center of his moral compass. What are Jeremiah's strengths, as a person and a parent? Does he have any weaknesses? Why did his wife leave him, all those years ago? And why does he "heal" the grotesque employer who fires him (p. 80)? Explain how the novel's dual themes of familial love and ardent faith are met in this character.

8. Both during Davy's trial and after his escape from prison, we encounter a variety of public viewpoints on what Reuben's brother has done. Such viewpoints, usually presented as personal letters or newspaper editorials, are always steadfast yet often contradictory. What does Reuben seem to realize about the so-called "court of public opinion," in light of these viewpoints?

9. Prayer is described in many ways, and on many occasions, in Peace Like a River. Reading this book, did you discover anything about the activity of, reasons for, or consequences of prayer? What larger points—about religion and human nature, say—might the author be making with his varied depictions of people at prayer? For instance, when remembering a prayer he said that included blessings for even his enemies, Reuben comments thus regarding Jape Waltzer: "Later I would wish I'd spent more time on him particularly" (p. 285). Why does Reuben feel this way? What power does he recognize in his own prayers? Discuss the impact prayer has on Reuben, and how it transforms him.

10. Recovering from a near-fatal asthmatic collapse, Reuben muses: "The infirm wait always, and know it" (p. 290). Given Reuben's physical condition, and given what we know about his ancestry and the story at hand, what is Reuben "waiting" for? How is his waiting resolved? Can this analogy be applied to any of the other characters?

11. The final miracle in Peace Like a River occurs, of course, when Jeremiah surrenders his life for Reuben. But why, at an earlier point in the story, does Reuben observe, "Since arriving at [Roxanna's] house, we'd had no miracles whatever" (p. 257). Discuss the truth and falsehood of this remark. How might Roxanna herself be seen as a miracle?

12. What does the character of Roxanna bring to the Land family? What does she provide that the Lands had lacked before her arrival? Over the course of the novel, Reuben's attitude and his physical descriptions of Roxanna change. In what ways does it change, do you think Roxanna’s attitudes toward the Lands as a family and Jeremiah as a person undergo a similar metamorphosis?

13. In "Be Jubilant, My Feet," the next-to-last chapter, Reuben and Jeremiah enter a world beyond this one. "Here in the orchard," our hero recalls, "I had a glimmer of origin: Adam, I thought" (p. 301). Where exactly are Reuben and his father? What happens to them? How have these crucial events been foreshadowed, and how are they new or unprecedented?

14. Much of this novel concerns the inner life of childhood: imagination, storytelling, chores, play, and school life. Discuss the author's portrayal of childhood. Do the children depicted here seem realistic? Why or why not?

15. Remembering his own childhood, author Leif Enger recently noted: "I grew up squinting from the backseat at gently rolling hills and true flatlands, where you could top a rise and see a tractor raising dust three miles away. So much world and sky is visible, it's hard to put much stock in your own influence." Does this type of relationship between the individual and the natural world appear in Peace Like a River? If so, where? Identify key passages or scenes where the characters seem inferior to the landscape, or even at the mercy of it.

16. Finishing his story, Reuben notes: "You should know that Jape Waltzer proved as uncatchable as Swede's own Valdez" (p. 309). What do the characters of Jape and Valdez represent in this novel? Conclude your discussion by comparing and contrasting Peace Like a River with the traditional morality play—the symbolic drama (dating back to medieval times) based on the eternal struggle between Good and Evil.
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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