January 22, 2009

Peace Like a River ****

**** Peace Like a River, Leif Enger, 2001

[Note: This review was written in 2003.]

I’ve been pretty busy these days, what with doing the day job, playing gigs 3 nights a month and writing my second novel. But when I called my editor GaryT and told him I was coming to see him, he said I wouldn’t be allowed in the door unless I had read Peace Like a River. So I bopped down to my local Logos Bookstore and grabbed a copy. I read it on the plane from Honolulu to Nashville.

I strongly suspect that GaryT recommended this book to me as a tonic against hubris, a totally unnecessary step, I might add. Regardless of the reason, I’m glad he did. This is one great book. And I’m not the only one who thinks so. Time Magazine put it in the top five for the year. The Christian Science Monitor, the Denver Post and the Los Angeles Times all named it the best book of the year. Inside the front cover are accolades from over twenty publications.

So, what’s all the fuss about? A story set in the rural Midwest in the 1960s, narrated by an eleven-year-old boy named Reuben Land. His most constant companion is his spunky eight-year-old sister, Swede, who has been justifiably called the Scout (To Kill a Mockingbird) of this century. His teenage brother Davy is a hunter/woodsman of rare skill, but when violence invades their family, Davy ends up in jail on a double-murder charge. The bulk of the book takes place on the road as the family searches for Davy, who becomes a fugitive from the law.

The father Jeremiah Land is the glue that holds everything together even when it is falling apart. Enger gives us a portrait of something one rarely sees in fiction, or in real life, for that matter – a deeply spiritual Christian without religious pretense, a disciple at any cost. He not only believes, but practices a divine calculus that turns common sense on its head. His own epiphany transforms him from a medical student to a school janitor, to the dismay of his wife, who leaves after it becomes apparent this change is permanent.

While there is much to admire in the story Enger pulls together, in what happens, there is even more to admire in the storytelling itself, in how he says it. He doesn’t pull any punches in vocabulary; he uses the work that fits, be it small or large. His style sometimes borders on the ornate, but far from detracting, it enhances the story as it unfolds.

And, in case you fear, as I did at first, that this book might end up as some cheesy moralistic tale, lay your fears aside. It is all as real and raw as life itself. As Andrew Roe of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “Peace Like a River serves as a reminder of why we read fiction to begin with.”

This, my friends, is a great read.

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