Sunday, March 06, 2016
“Peace Like A River”
I have to thank a longtime Chico friend, now living in Livermore, for recommending an extraordinary novel, a best seller when it was published in 2001.
“Peace Like A River” ($16 in paperback from Grove/Atlantic; also for Amazon Kindle) by Leif Enger takes place in the early Sixties, mostly in Minnesota and North Dakota. Enger, raised in Osakis, Minnesota, became a reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio. “Peace” is a story of faith and doubt, of the miraculous and the mundane, bloodshed and redemption. And, oh, the words.
It is 1962. Jeremiah Land lives with his three children in Minnesota, Davy, the oldest at 16; Reuben, 11; and Swede, just 9. Told by a much older Reuben, looking back, the story begins with Reuben’s troubled birth and an account of the first of Jeremiah’s miracles.
The baby is not breathing, despite the best efforts of Dr. Nokes. Jeremiah smacks the doctor aside; “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.’” And he does.
Why was Reuben allowed to survive, plagued now by asthma? “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. … 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. … When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of earth.”
Yet the story is anchored to the earth and is shaped by the snowy landscape. One horrible night, as two bullies enter the Lands’ house, Davy is ready with his rifle, and kills them both.
There is evidence that this was not self-defense, and Davy is jailed, but escapes to the Badlands. And so begins a quest to find Davy. Justice and mercy co-mingle in a story as fragile as human life and as strong as Easter.