A month or two ago, I got a book recommendation from Nate, of a kind that was worth paying attention to. He had spoken at a conference for Christian artists together with a writer named Leif Enger, and was really impressed with him. As a result he got and read one of Enger’s books titled Peace Like a River. When he was done he told me that he thought I would really like it. So I bought it, read it, and really liked it.
Now this book has been out for more than a decade and has boatloads of critical acclaim, but I had never heard of it. Feel like I have been living in a cardboard box or something. But I have heard of it now, and want any people who are in the same condition of ignorant missing-out-ness that I was in to drop everything and go get it.
Enger’s marvelous prose is shaped on a hand turned lathe. He is descriptive, vivid, gripping, and — hard to do in a book that is not a comedy — laugh-out-loud funny. His metaphors startle you, right before falling into their place with a satisfying click — and he does it over and over again.
Second, in discussions of fiction, we routinely make a distinction between round characters and flat ones. Many good novelists know how to shape round characters on a page, but I have never read anyone who did it with so many characters as quickly as Enger did with this story. I am not quite sure how he did it, but just a few pages into the novel, I knew the characters and cared very much what happened to them. The narrator is a young boy blamed Reuben Land, with an older brother Davy and a younger sister Swede. Their mom ran off when they were little, and they are being raised by a remarkable father, Jeremiah Land, a school janitor. They live in small town Minnesota in the early sixties.
The third thing I appreciated was Enger’s tribute to and application of certain key themes from C.S. Lewis. It was not heavy-handed at all, and it comes at you from directions you weren’t expecting at all, and it was wonderfully done. This was not a cheap knock-off, but rather an intelligent realization of how rich Lewis’s vision was, and how many ways it can be reapplied.
If you don’t like spoilers, and are already planning on reading the book, then I would recommend you stop reading now. But if you want to know a bit more about the book before deciding, even at the cost of some spoilers, then read on. Swede is a precocious girl, thoroughly likeable, brilliant, with a literary bent, and still very much a little girl. The narrator Reuben suffers from asthma, an affliction which runs like a thematic thread through the whole book. Davy is a teenager, but is already hard enough to be a man. When a couple of the town bullies try to get back at Jeremiah (for some justice he applied to them) by viciously scaring and bruising Swede, Davy provokes a showdown with them, with the result that he kills them both. He is arrested and put on trial. Before the trial is over, he breaks out of jail and heads for the Dakota Badlands.
After some months, his family head out West to try find him, an effort that is totally fruitless from a human vantage point because they have no idea where he went to. But a federal lawman thinks they do, and so he follows them. But the reason they go is that . . . and this is the hard part to explain . . . Jeremiah Land the janitor is a devout Christian man, and periodic miracles happen to and through him. The miracles are as weird in the book as they are to the reader, but they are common enough to be looked for and rare enough to keep it a book of genuinely realistic fiction.
One of the miracles has to be one of the most satisfying passages of fiction I have ever read. I won’t tell you about it here — that would be too much of a spoiler — but if you get around to reading the book, it is the one that happens in the school cafeteria.
While they are off looking for Davy, Jeremiah unexpectedly finds a wife, Swede and Reuben find a mother, Reuben finds Davy, and they all find quite a bit more trouble. The end of the book manages to be bittersweet without being bitter at all, it is grab you by the neck emotional without being sentimental, and every miracle, like every metaphor, falls right into place. The book ended right. I can’t believe I had never heard of this book.