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No.
41


 
Insightful,
Interesting,
Dramatic

31 reviews

Peace Like a River
by Leif Enger

Published: 2002-08-20
Paperback : 320 pages
254 members reading this now
165 clubs reading this now
85 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 24 of 31 members
One of Time Magazine's Top Five Books of the Year.
A Christian Science Montor,Denver Post, and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

"Once in a great while, a book comes along that has such wonderful characters and marvelous prose, that you read it as much for the pure joy it offers on ...

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Introduction

One of Time Magazine's Top Five Books of the Year.
A Christian Science Montor,Denver Post, and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year.

"Once in a great while, a book comes along that has such wonderful characters and marvelous prose, that you read it as much for the pure joy it offers on every page as to find out how it ends." -Denver Post

Leif Enger's best-selling debut is at once a heroic quest, a tragedy, and a love story in which "what could be unbelievable becomes extraordinary" (Miami Herald). Enger brings us eleven-year-old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy in the Midwest who has reason to believe in miracles. Along with his sister and father, Reuben finds himself on a cross-country search for his outlaw older brother who has been charged with murder. Their journey unfolds like a revelation, and its conclusion shows how family, love, and faith can stand up to the most terrifying of enemies, and the most tragic of fates.

Editorial Review

No editorial review at this time.

Excerpt

CLAY

From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with—given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century. Think about your own first gasp: a shocking wind roweling so easily down your throat, and you still slipping around in the doctor’s hands. How you yowled! Not a thing on your mind but breakfast, and that was on the way.

When I was born to Helen and Jeremiah Land, in 1951, my lungs refused to kick in.

My father wasn’t in the delivery room or even in the building; the halls of Wilson Hospital were close and short, and Dad had gone out to pace in the damp September wind. He was praying, rounding the block for the fifth time, when the air quickened. He opened his eyes and discovered he was running—sprinting across the grass toward the door.

“How’d you know?” I adored this story, made him tell it all the time.

“God told me you were in trouble.”

“Out loud? Did you hear Him?”

“Nope, not out loud. But He made me run, Reuben. I guess I figured it out on the way.”

I had, in fact, been delivered some minutes before. My mother was dazed, propped against soggy pillows, unable to comprehend what Dr. Animas Nokes was telling her.

“He still isn’t breathing, Mrs. Land.”

“Give him to me!”

To this day I’m glad Dr. Nokes did not hand me over on demand. Tired as my mother was, who knows when she would’ve noticed? Instead he laid me down and rubbed me hard with a towel. He pounded my back; he rolled me over and massaged my chest. He breathed air into my mouth and nose—my chest rose, fell with a raspy whine, stayed fallen. Years later Dr. Nokes would tell my brother Davy that my delivery still disturbed his sleep. He’d never seen a child with such swampy lungs.

When Dad skidded into the room, Dr. Nokes was sitting on the side of the bed holding my mother’s hand. She was wailing—I picture her as an old woman here, which is funny, since I was never to see her as one—and old Nokes was attempting to ease her grief. It was unavoidable, he was saying; nothing could be done; perhaps it was for the best.

I was lying uncovered on a metal table across the room.

Dad lifted me gently. I was very clean from all that rubbing, and I was gray and beginning to cool. A little clay boy is what I was.

“Breathe,” Dad said.

I lay in his arms.

Dr. Nokes said, “Jeremiah, it has been twelve minutes.”

“Breathe!” The picture I see is of Dad, brown hair short and wild, giving this order as if he expected nothing but obedience.

Dr. Nokes approached him. “Jeremiah. There would be brain damage now. His lungs can’t fill.”

Dad leaned down, laid me back on the table, took off his jacket and wrapped me in it—a black canvas jacket with a quilted lining, I have it still. He left my face uncovered.

“Sometimes,” said Dr. Nokes, “there is something unworkable in one of the organs. A ventricle that won’t pump correctly. A liver that poisons the blood.” Dr. Nokes was a kindly and reasonable man. “Lungs that can’t expand to take in air. In these cases,” said Dr. Nokes, “we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best.” At which Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused. As Mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.”

The truth is, I didn’t think much on this until a dozen years later—beyond, of course, savoring the fact that I’d begun life in a dangerous and thus romantic manner. When you are seven years old there’s nothing as lovely and tragic as telling your friends you were just about dead once. It made Dad my hero, as you might expect, won him my forgiveness for anything that he might do forever; but until later events it didn’t occur to me to wonder just why I was allowed, after all, to breathe and keep breathing.

The answer, it seems to me now, lies in the miracles.

Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it’s been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week—a miracle, people say, as if they’ve been educated from greeting cards. I’m sorry, but nope. Such things are worth our notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strength of the word.

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It’s true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave—now there’s a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of earth.

My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed—though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.

The fact is, the miracles that sometimes flowed from my father’s fingertips had few witnesses but me. Yes, enough people saw enough strange things that Dad became the subject of a kind of misspoken folklore in our town, but most ignored the miracles as they ignored Dad himself.

I believe I was preserved, through those twelve airless minutes, in order to be a witness, and as a witness, let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.

If he were here to begin the account, I believe Dad would say what he said to Swede and me on the worst night of all our lives:

We and the world, my children, will always be at war.

Retreat is impossible.

Arm yourselves.

© 2001 Leif Enger All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-87113-795-X view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

Discussion questions from the publisher's reading guide:

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.

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

No notes at this time.

Book Club Recommendations

It's. an older book.
by Spinebreakers (see profile) 05/04/17
Double check if members have already rea,d it before choosing it.

Member Reviews

Overall rating:
 
 
by krilljack (see profile) 07/04/20

 
by ladydiphil (see profile) 07/06/17

 
by wisamyounis (see profile) 05/04/17

 
  "Peace like a River"by Spinebreakers (see profile) 05/04/17

Loved the different topic, the wide variety of subjects to discuss and how well it was written. I really got to know and love the characters. It was easy to visualize scenes in this story an... (read more)

 
by dianagraalum (see profile) 05/04/17

 
  "Peace Like a River"by lovebooks58 (see profile) 03/09/17

Beautifully written and compelling story. Many engaging characters that capture your interest and emotions in wide swings.

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