For years I carried around in my wallet a little scrap of paper that read Peace like a River, Leif Enger. I didn’t recognize the handwriting but knew it was a book recommendation from someone. I’m really glad I held on to it.
The novel was a bestseller when it came out in 2001, and I’ve learned its title came from lyrics in the hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul.” There’s a good sweep of religious undertow bearing this book along (giving it some height and depth), but it also offers a captivating narrative that sets the pace.
A lot of the book’s charm comes from its 11-year-old narrator, Reuben Land, and the storytelling rings true and compelling as seen through his eyes. Of particular appeal is his relationship with his precocious younger sister, Swede, whose literary concoctions and imagination give the book some fun.
The two Minnesota youngsters are enamored with the romance of the American West, its gunslingers and heroes, and this fascination with outlaws helps blur the lines between good guys and bad guys. Their father, Jeremiah, a devout daily Bible reader and suspected miracle-worker, provides ballast and wisdom and his own spark of mystery.
The storyline is deadly serious. Reuben is a witness to a brutal act by his older brother, rides along when the law pursues him and takes the stand when his brother goes to trial. The boy is often torn between family loyalty and justice, right and wrong, and the malevolent and sympathetic characters who inhabit the adult world. And each surprising turn delivers its own suspense.
The book poses some tough questions — and not just for an 11-year-old boy — and it provides no certain answers. And I kept turning pages because I saw no good way out of the manhunt that closes in on Davy, the older brother whose flight brings him to a close encounter with evil.
As happens in life, good and bad things happen, ambiguity is left standing, and some people (but not all) go on with their lives. I like a book with interesting people and a plot to engage and with enough meat on the bones to make the reading worthwhile.
I’m really glad I finally read this one. It’s no surprise that it once won an ALA Alex Award as the best adult novel for teens. It’s clean and lean, readable and entertaining, but it poses questions that erase generations.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine.