Peace Like a River (2002)

by Leif Enger

Peace Like a River, Leif Enger's first novel, was both praised and panned. Readers who liked it were inspired by its warmth and belief in heroism and miracles. Those who didn’t found the story unbelievable, the characters shallow, and the writing pretentious.

Reuben, an 11-year-old boy with asthma, narrates the first-person story about his rural Minnesota family in the early 1960s. The deeply spiritual father, Jeremiah, might have gone far with his keen intellect but works as a school janitor. His exasperated wife has abandoned him and their three children. Reuben is the middle child between hot-tempered Davy, 16, and the precocious, poetry-writing Swede, 9. In the culmination of a series of incidents involving his family and two teenage bullies, Davy shoots the two and is charged with murder. On the eve of the verdict in his trial, he escapes from jail. The family takes to the road in an attempt to find him; their car breaks down in the Badlands—near the home of a woman who turns out to be the perfect candidate for second wife and mother, and not far from where Davy is hiding with a crazy man who ends up adding to the family’s misfortune.

The book requires a willingness to suspend disbelief—not just about Davy’s hiding place but also Jeremiah’s ability to perform miracles like walking on air. It’s probably best suited to readers who, like Jeremiah, believe that faith is not supposed to make perfect sense.


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