Review: Peace Like a River

Lief Enger (2001)

Last fall, while I was staying on Washington Island, my friends and I hit the local book shop after caffeinating next door at the local coffee shop. I love visiting independent book stores when I’m on vacation. It’s a great way to get a feeling for the place you’re in. I’ve found many an interesting, memorable literary discovery browsing the staff picks and hometown favorites. Some of my best memories of the places I’ve traveled center around the memorable book stores I’ve visited. (Octavia Books in New Orleans is at the top of that list.)

Popping in to Islandtime Books on Washington Island was just such experience. We were lucky to be there on the day before the owner closed up shop for the season, so an all-out sale was going on. Stacks of books were purchased by all three of us. And it was here that I picked up another wonderful author, who’s catalog I’ll be sure to burn through based on how much I loved Peace Like a River.

Peace Like a River absolutely wrapped me up in its world and carried me away. Part modern western, part coming of age tale reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Peace is told by the adult Reuban Land, looking back on the winter of his twelfth year. Set in the early 1960s, Reuben lives with his older brother Davy, younger sister Swede, and father, a janitor named Jeremiah with a gift for miracles. An act of violence defending his family lands Davy in jail, and when he escapes, the family pursues him from rural Minnesota to the Badlands of North Dakota in the deep of winter. Also looking for the outlaw, and lurking in the family’s shadow, dogging their every move, is an FBI agent determined to apprehend Davy.

Miracles play a big part in this story, beginning with Reuban’s birth when the doctor all but pronounces the baby dead and the devout Jeremiah brings him back to life with the force of his faith. Balancing the religious theme is Swede, an aspiring author caught up in the romance of the western, spinning folk poems about a hero named Sunny Sundown that echo Davy’s situation.

Enger has created a family of characters and a vivid sense of place that are tangible, made real with a simple yet elegant prose that doesn’t waste a word and is a pleasure to pour through. Peace Like a River is an absolute A-1 reading experience.

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