Peace Like a River – Leif Enger

Wow. I came to the end of the book and had to pause a minute to absorb everything I had just read. “Peace Like a River” is the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Rueben Land is an eleven-year-old with a horrible case of asthma. Swede is his nine-year-old sister, and they have an older brother, Davy, already in his teens. Their father, Jeremiah, has been single for years, and is an amazing man. Deeply connected to his faith, he has literally performed miracles, and Rueben has seen him do it.

The family is poor, but they are rich in the things that matter the most. Faith, love of learning, unity –these are the trademarks of the Land family. They are fiercely loyal to each other, and in fact, this loyalty causes some trouble.

It all begins when two teenage boys decide to rough up Davy’s girlfriend in the locker room during a game at the school. Jeremiah hears the commotion and goes in to save her, his face taking on the appearance of an avenging angel as he defends her honor. The boys don’t understand the significance of what they’ve seen. They only know that Jeremiah Land is now their enemy. They come out to the house one night and take Swede for a joy ride, not doing her any physical harm, but threating her and using her abduction as a warning to the Lands to stay out of their way. Later they come back to the house, but Davy is ready, and shoots and kills both of them.

Davy is arrested for double murder and the press has a heyday with it. One minute, he’s been shown as a hero who was just protecting his home and his little sister, and the next, as a cold-blooded criminal. As the trial takes a turn for the worse, he escapes, the very night Rueben and Swede decide they need to rescue him themselves, and take steak knives to bed with them to use as weapons.

With Davy on the run, the pressure on the Land family increases. Visits from the FBI become regular, the town is divided in their treatment of the family, and Rueben’s attacks of asthma become more frequent. Finally, Jeremiah decides it’s time to go look for Davy, and they load up and head out.

The author uses astonishingly good turn of phrase in this book, taking a description of something very simple and turning it into sheer brilliance. Swede is a budding poet and her contributions to the book are clever and insightful. The passages where Jeremiah uses his faith to work good in the lives of others are inspiring and uplifting. Without being overtly religious, this book shows the power of religion in a life that wants to receive it.

If you only read one fiction book this summer, I strongly urge you to let this be the one. You’ll be entertained, you’ll feel joy, sorrow, compassion, and tenderness. You’ll be tense with suspicion one minute and laughing out loud the next.

(This book was published in 2001 by Grove Press.)

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