Peace Like a River, the first book by Leif Enger, is being hailed as the most recent great American novel. But do not let the excessive hype and accompanying critical backlash cause you to miss this exciting literary debut. It is well worth a read.
The book is a first-person account by a narrator with omniscient hindsight. Reuben "Rube" Land is an asthmatic who grew up relatively motherless and poor in rural Minnesota, insulated by a warm and bigger-than-life family: brother Davy, around whom much of the drama centers; sister Swede, a writer equal parts Homer and Louis L'Amour; and their father Jeremiah, a man able to channel God-given miracles on an as-needed basis.
Rube is 11 years old in 1962 when brother Davy kills two town bullies. There is some question as to the morality of the killing; nevertheless, the act results in a partial trial, an escape from jail, life on the lam and an Airstream-Trailer trip by the loyal family to find Davy.
Despite the inclusion of several tests of faith, do not be scared off by the religious implications of the story. Peace Like a River can be thoroughly enjoyed by those with secular leanings, much like the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Enger has no intention of shoving religion down the throats of his readers; his is simply an exciting and moving story.
Enger's language seems from another time. His folksy style makes the book's adventures and dilemmas seem timeless. The result is an earlier-era atmosphere reminiscent, in both style and substance, of Mark Twain and To Kill a Mockingbird, along with multitudes of other literary touchstones, with nods to characters from American fables. Enger liberally sprinkles the book with his influences, at times literally, at other times subtly.
Folk wisdom abounds, much of it with its traditional verbiage, words not much seen in fiction anymore, like: thus, forsake, atop and begrudgingly, or the phrase "up and" used as a verb. People in the book talk like this: "When did it come to Davy Land that exile is a country of shifting borders, hard to quit yet hard to endure, no matter your wide shoulders, no matter your toughened heart?" and "She always did think better of me than I had coming." It works, at times nearly corny, but always managing to avoid that particular vegetable field.
Enger's writing is consistently excellent and he is successful with just about every description he attempts:
Did you ever see an angry goose up close? It's a different bird from those you've watched flying south or waddling in city parks. An adult goose in a wrathful mood can stand up and look a third-grader right in the eye, and that's what this fellow did to Swede. She got within a yard and stopped cold. ... This goose still owned its spirit.
The book has a gentle mood and humor, forsaking cynicism for innocence (now Enger's got me doing it!). Enger has written some laugh-out-loud scenes, along with some incredibly suspenseful moments. This is a book to which you can give yourself up and become lost; it is filled with magic. Peace Like a River is a good old-fashioned foray into rural American adventure and religious faith, and an unusually satisfying debut novel.