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Likely Stories - Peace Like A River

My name is Harrison Otis, and I'm a graduate student in the English Department at Baylor University. Today I'm reviewing Peace Like a River, the 2001 debut novel by Minnesota author Leif Enger.

In Peace Like a River, eleven-year-old Reuben Land and his family drive west in search of their brother who is on the run from the law.

Reuben has severe asthma and should, by rights, have died at birth-but his father Jeremiah literally performs a miracle in the delivery room to jumpstart Reuben's lungs. Jeremiah, the miracle-worker, is wise and devout, but in some ways conspicuously fragile; the outlaw brother Davy, on the other hand, is independent and relies on his own skill to make his own miracles. Soon the adolescent Reuben finds himself torn between these two different visions of strength and maturity.

An older Reuben tells the story, and he recounts all the virtues and vices of his childhood-its courage and arrogance and fear-with an ironic detachment and gentle humor that makes his story feel simultaneously comic and profound, both weighty and light. This is important, because there are plenty of weighty things in the novel, from murder to sexual exploitation to garden-variety malice. But Reuben tells his story in such a way as to neither downplay the seriousness of these evils, nor despair because of them. It's a story told through the eyes of a child with the insight of a mature adult, and it's this double vision that gives the novel its power.

Peace Like a River is significantly inspired by Enger's own parents, who read him Robert Louis Stevenson as a child and, Enger says, "built into their children a westerly tilt and a love of wide places." This last sentence is also true of Peace Like a River: it has a westerly tilt and loves wide places, like the Dakota badlands where the Land family goes to seek their missing brother. In the novel, Reuben's younger sister, Swede, is a voracious reader of Westerns and author of several heroic poems about the dauntless cowboy Sunny Sundown. Swede's poetry is an homage

to the classic adventure stories that Enger grew up with and a love letter to the mythos of the American West. It's also a meaningful part of Swede's own growth as a character: we watch the way that her own experiences with evil and suffering trouble the straightforward good vs. evil stories that she initially tells.

In addition to its rich central characters, the novel also has an array of memorable minor characters, and toward the end of the book-there's an eerie character who acts with such monumental and sinister self-confidence that it is hard to look away.

Peace Like a River was one of the best books I read last year. It's deeply serious but not depressing, and deeply funny but not glib. It's a story about the problem of evil, the search for justice and peace in the wake of suffering, but it's also a celebration of the beauties of nature, of family, of the written word. It made me laugh; it made me cry; it made me angry; it made me wince with recognition. Masterfully told and always just a little bit unexpected, Leif Enger's Peace Like a River stares death in the face-and manages to come out smiling.

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