Peace Like a River
by Leif Enger
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001
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(From Amazon.com) Leif Enger's rhapsodic novel about a father raising his three children in 1960s Minnesota is a breathtaking celebration of family, faith, and America's pioneering spirit. Through the voice of eleven-year-old Reuben, an asthmatic boy obsessed with cowboy stories, Peace Like a River tells of the Land family's cross-country search for Reuben's outlaw older brother, who has been controversially charged with murder.
Sprinkled with playful and warmhearted nods to biblical tales, classic American novels such as Huckleberry Finn, the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the Westerns of Zane Grey, Peace Like a River brilliantly incorporates the best elements of all these genres and ultimately earns its own prominent and enduring place on the shelf among them.
Reuben Land was born with no air in his lungs, and it was only when his father, Jeremiah, picked him up and commanded him to breathe that his lungs filled. Reuben struggles with debilitating asthma thenceforth, but he is a boy who knows firsthand that life is a gift, and also one who suspects that his father can overturn the laws of nature.
When Reuben's older brother, Davy, kills two marauders who have come to harm the family, the town is divided between those who see him as a hero and those who see him as a cold-blooded murderer. On the morning of the trial, Davy escapes from his cell, and when his family finds out they decide to go forth into the unknown in search of him. With Jeremiahwhose faith is the stuff of legendat the helm, the family covers territory far more glorious than even the Badlands, where they search for Davy from their Airstream trailer. By the time the journey is over, they will have traversed boundaries of a different nature entirely. Marked by a soul-expanding sense of place and a love of storytelling, Peace Like a River is at once a heroic quest, a tragedy, a romance, and a heartfelt meditation on the possibility of magic in the everyday world.
About the Author
A former reporter with Minnesota Public Radio, and a father of two boys, Leif Enger makes his home in rural Minnesota, where he home-schools his children with his wife and writes. He said of the rural Midwest in a recent interview with Mark LaFramboise of Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C.: "I grew up squinting from the back seat at gently rolling hills and true flatlands, where you top a rise and see a tractor raising dust three miles away. So much world and sky is visible it's hard to put much stock in your own influenceit's a perfect landscape for cultivating gratitude."
|© Atlantic Monthly Press
from the "Pluggen In" section of Minnesota Monthly magazine
As former Minnesota Public Radio reporter Leif Enger reflects on the connection between fiction and journalism and what he misses about "the wondrous process" of radio.
Q. You were a Minnesota Public Radio reporter for 16 years before the publication of your novel, Peace Like a River. Did journalism lead you to fiction writing? How are the forms the same? Different?
A. It was actually the reverse-fiction led to journalism, which now has led back to fiction. All through college I nursed the hope of writing novels, but knowing this was unlikely to support a family, became a reporter so as to practice with words. The forms are similar in requiring imagination and a balance between tone and momentum; your desire to wax eloquent is usually (and rightfully) restrained by the need to keep the piece moving. My editors at Minnesota Public Radio were insightful about this tightrope act and usually kept me from tipping too far into dramatics. In fiction there's more leeway to digress, but in fact you're still telling a story, and your readers will still go away if it stalls too long.
Q. What was it like juggling the writing life and the reporting life? In that kind of story-filled existence, was it ever difficult to keep your stories on the radio separate from your stories on the page?
A. I'm a morning writer, so the only difficulty juggling fiction and radio was the lack of sleep, which was my own fault: had I gone to bed at 8:30 p.m., I'd have gotten in eight clean hours before the alarm went off. Instead I preferred to stay up enjoying the company of my family, so rising to write required hard blinking and strong coffee.
I never confused Minnesota Public Radio work with fiction, though there was constant temptation to embellish radio pieces with salient make-believe details. Especially animals-I always liked stories where a joyful dog or a one-eyed horse meanders through.
Q. Your book casts a critical eye on the media's portrayal of the news. Did your own career as a member of the media influence this aspect of the book?
A. A person inside any occupation sees its sins, even while committing them. The truth is that a story's easier to write when it has a clear hero or villain, especially when you're on deadline. In time-driven newsrooms, complexity is the enemy of productivity. This is why reporters dread getting phone calls from those they portray after the piece has aired.
Q. What does it mean to you to have been selected as a Talking Volumes book club author in a season that has seen the likes of Salman Rushdie, John Edgar Wideman, Robert Bly and Jane Hamilton on the schedule?
A. It means I'm the rookie in right field, grateful to be there, completely outclassed and just hoping not to drop the ninth-inning fly ball.