11-year old Reuben Land, a character in the 2001 book Peace Like a River, provides narration that is clear-eyed and insightful, yet retains the magic, wonder, and innocence of youth. I found it easy to entrust my imagination to the author’s clever method of telling the story through the sensibilities of a pre-teen boy. An author with lesser skill would have either made the boy too smart-alecky for his own good or impossibly cute. As it is written, the character is believable and real.
The novel employs the wide open spaces of the Minnesota countryside and rugged terrain of the North Dakota Badlands as a backdrop for its colorful tapestry. Set in the early 1960s, author Leif Enger uses diverse elements including Old Testament and Old West allusions and literary/historical references—often accented by miracles—to tell a tale which highlights eternal truth.
As with many stories that contain elements of fantasy, it’s easy to find unmitigated joy in the unexpected mining of tiny truth nuggets hidden in the rubble of the narrative. When I happen upon a vivid and compelling truth—whether or not actually intended by the author—like the power of an atom bomb which belies its size, it detonates waves of pleasure which resonate like massive ripples in a small mountain stream. You will discover many such moments in Peace Like a River.
Without succumbing to cartoonish hyperbole or explicit moralizing, Enger uses compelling characters and masterful prose to craft a story which is both familiar and mysterious. Like a well worn path, I found values that were inspirational, comfortable, and warm as my favorite pair of gloves. And yet, despite moments of recognition, I was also intrigued and jarred by so many strange twists and turns. Like a fountain drink of living water, this story refreshed and fulfilled a deep hole, but left me craving more. Of this great novel, it’s equally true to say that I’ve seen it before and I’ve never seen it before.
Peace Like a River is a novel which contains deep sadness, pain, and lost innocence. Despite that, I found it dripping with loyalty, peace, faith, joy, and extraordinary love. As the novel ebbs and flows—I was vividly reminded once again that good is better than evil, the truth is better than a lie, and that life is better than death.