Book Club September 2015
Peace Like A River by Leif Enger
blog by Cindy Bushey
For an adult to write a story and tell it through the eyes and voice of a child would seem to be a literary technique for an author with experience. Yet in Peace Like a River, the September choice of Zion’s readers, first-time author Leif Enger has accomplished just that. Young Reuben’s descriptions of his life and family are pitch-perfect and draw the reader into this tale of loss and redemption. At times, the author’s phrasing can lead a reader to laughter and at times to tears. The story is set in the 1960’s in the upper Midwest and showcases a family reeling from blows that might tear it apart.
Reuben battles severe asthma at a time when treatment was rudimentary (inhaling steam from boiling water and having your back pounded to loosen mucus). He, his father and siblings have been abandoned by his mother. His father, Jeremiah, is a fervent believer in God and weathers the loss as best he can, coping with a humiliating job and outright insults with tired understanding. Reuben’s younger sister, Suede, is a precocious poet and reader, wise beyond her years. His older brother, Davy, is a smoldering teen with an Old Testament sense of right and wrong, an eye for an eye, and very protective of his family. And yet Reuben would have us believe that this ordinary family has a fountain of extraordinary miracles. They begin at Reuben’s birth when his father wills Reuben to breathe after doctors had given up. They extend to watching his father pacing on the back of a truck, so engrossed in prayer that he walks OFF the end, turns, and walks back!
We all like to believe in miracles. Sometimes belief requires a leap of faith, a suspension of reality, an opening to possibility, a return to innocence. Sometimes enjoying a book requires that, too. Some of Zion’s readers could make that leap and some could not. As Suede is kidnapped by town ruffians and threatened, and Davy sets himself to a course of vengeance, the family is bombarded with trials that emulate those of Job in the Bible. Mr. Enger’s debut novel is an astounding accomplishment for a first-time effort; “ambitious in scope” is how one reader described it. By painting his characters with broad strokes, the author is writing a morality play with allegorical characters like Wisdom (Jeremiah), Justice (Mr. Andreeson) and the Avenging Angel (Davy). Comparisons to To Kill A Mockingbird were common among reviewers when this novel was published in 2001, and Zion’s readers could understand that comparison.
Miracles continued to flow from Jeremiah, who seemed to be unaware of his power, even to the point of sacrifice at the close of the novel. Yet, the story remained that of an eleven year-old boy no matter which way the focus shifted. There were readers who found some of the characters’ traits unrealistic as when Suede composed poetry fit for an adult, but it was a different time and these kids had to grow up fast. There were readers who were unabashed in their appreciation of what they felt was a wonderful novel. Some felt the book was over-filled with description and got bogged down half way through the story. Readers with a historical bent enjoyed the real-life characters that appeared throughout the story. A couple readers did not like it at all, and at least one reader could not summon interest to finish the book. Another, however, is recommending it for a different book club. Again, that willingness to suspend reality seemed to make all the difference in our readers’ appreciation of the book. At voting time, there were five who remained neutral and four who gave it one thumb up. Mr. Enger has continued his writing endeavors, and it would be interesting to see how his later works compare with this early one.