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Peace Like a River

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Once in a great while, we encounter a novel in our voluminous reading that begs to be read aloud. Leif Enger's debut, Peace Like a River, is one such work. His richly evocative novel, narrated by an asthmatic 11-year-old named Reuben Land, is the story of Reuben's unusual family and their journey across the frozen Badlands of the Dakotas in search of his fugitive older brother. Charged with the murder of two locals who terrorized their family, Davy has fled, understanding that the scales of justice will not weigh in his favor. But Reuben, his father, Jeremiah—a man of faith so deep he has been known to produce miracles—and Reuben's little sister, Swede, follow closely behind the fleeing Davy.

Affecting and dynamic, Peace Like a River is at once a tragedy, a romance, and an unflagging exploration into the spirituality and magic possible in the everyday world, and in that of the world awaiting us on the other side of life. In Enger's superb debut effort, we witness a wondrous celebration of family, faith, and spirit, the likes of which we haven't seen in a long, long time—and the birth of a classic work of literature.

312 pages, Paperback

First published August 2, 2001

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About the author

Leif Enger

30 books1,615 followers
Leif Enger was raised in Osakis, Minnesota, and worked as a reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio for nearly twenty years. He lives on a farm in Minnesota with his wife and two sons.

His writing is a smooth mix of romanticism and gritty reality, recalling the Old West's greatest cowboy stories.

Enger's novel, Peace Like a River, was one of Time magazine's top-five novels of the year 2001 and appeared on several other best seller lists.

His second novel, So Brave, Young, and Handsome also appeared on best seller lists in 2008.

For further details, see the author's Wikipedia page.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 8,922 reviews
Profile Image for Julie G.
896 reviews2,925 followers
October 24, 2017
I have added braided extensions to my hair, dolled up my face with bad 80s makeup and donned my largest hoop earrings. I now turn to the ladies of my book club as I sing:

Do you really want to hurt me?
Do you really want to make me cry

Because you must. You must want to hurt me. You must want to darken and deepen that annoying vertical line that spontaneously popped up between my eyebrows when I turned 40. You must want me to appear haggard and aged, by making this our upcoming November read.

You must hate me. Oh no! Do you?

I hope you don't hate me. Hate me for stopping. Hate me for hating this wannabe John Irving knock-off debut. I hope you don't, because I love you.

And, yes. It is a debut. I get it. I hope things got better later for this author.

I'm not trying to be mean here. It's hard to write a debut novel. I've got one that's still crouching in my own computer, and we're both terrified to go back out on a date together.

But, as readers, we can get very distracted by the candy on the counter. We are quick to dub a debut brilliant (as so many reviewers have with this one—you should see the back of this book). Sometimes, we are too quick to coo. . . Ooo! To quote lines like, “Her fingers were long, capable, conversant: a woman's fingers, slightly reddened from some recent scrubbing. Her fingers were the oldest part of her.”

And there are lines like that in this read, and you may believe they are lyrical or mystical or whatever happy adjective you want to assign them, and sometimes they are. But, when you break it all down. . . those beautiful lines above were thoughts that were expressed by an 11-year-old, an observation made on the fingers of a 12-year-old he's crushing on, and IT JUST DOESN'T MAKE ANY DAMN SENSE. How many 11-year-old boys do YOU know who think. . . Her fingers were the oldest part of her?? You're lucky if an 11-year-old boy notices that he HAS hands, and, if he does, it's probably because they're shoved down his pants.

So, the 11-year-old talks like an aged romantic, the 8-year-old talks like a wizened 88-year-old and the however-old-he-is father doesn't speak. And, I honestly could not figure out what time period this was supposed to be. 1928? 1948? 1978?

And then we've got the whole. . . the father levitates off of the back of his truck. And, the pot of soup refills itself (like Jesus and the loaves), and the broken saddle spontaneously repairs itself. . . and to all of these quirky events, the inconsistent voice of the narrator simply replies. . . “Make of that what you will.”

Make of that what you will? What kind of a literary technique is that?? I believe it's known as the “cop out.”

Sir, no offense, but you aren't Isabel Allende. It does not work. You can not make random nonsense occur to one family in the entire world and expect me as a reader to run with it.

None of this works for me. Make it go away!!
Profile Image for Beth Given.
1,267 reviews37 followers
February 18, 2016
2016 REVIEW:
I just re-read this one for book club. After almost eight years, it was good to revisit it and rediscover what I loved about it. I remembered loving the characters (especially Reuben and Swede) and the setting (the desolation of the Dakota Badlands). I remembered loving the writing: absolutely some of the best writing I've encountered in all the books I've read.

I remembered almost nothing of the plot besides fugitive Davy and the family in the Airstream trailer, so it was an especially enjoyable re-read.

This book is both sad and hopeful. A little gritty in places without being unnecessarily graphic. A little too unreal at times ... but so real in the way the characters feel and react. A beautiful tribute to faith in God, a theme that is so rarely treated with the respect and depth it deserves.

Yeah -- this book is just beautiful. Still one of my favorites.


2011 REVIEW (audio):
I read this book in the summer of 2008 and just listened to it again this month (February 2011). It's every bit as wonderful as I remember. The writing it some of the most beautiful I've ever read (reminds me, strangely enough, of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn). The characters are so incredibly likable. I loved the themes of miracles, loyalty, accountability, faith.

It's a bittersweet story, but for me, the sweet outweighs the bitter.


2008 REVIEW:
This has been on my to-read book ever since seeing how highly recommended it came from Jenn. Lots of my other Goodreads friends had read it, too, and they’d all loved it.

I loved it, too.

Three things that kept me turning those pages:

1. The characters. Eleven-year-old Reuben soon became one of my favorite narrators ever. Loved him and everything about him. And don’t even get me started on little sister Swede. I’m sure there’s no eight-year-old who’s quite so bright and hardworking and loyal and talented — and yet I adored her (even if she is too good to be true). I loved Roxanna as much as the children — and as much as Jeremiah Land, the father, the good-hearted example and anchor of the family … and the book.

2. The writing. The prose is so lyrical and yet so effortless, and the poetry (yes, there’s Swede’s verses interspersed throughout) is amazing. The descriptions are terrific; the metaphors are fresh rather than trite. The first-person point-of-view is honest and intriguing and keeps the story moving (which is usually a “lyrical” book’s downfall — it gets longwinded. Not this one.) And — get this — I don’t think there was a single swear word in the whole three-hundred-and-thirteen pages, or sex scene, or any of that usual stuff that lands a book on a best-seller list (which, I think, it was on for a time). Hooray! (That said, there is some violence. But not graphic violence.)

3. The message. The book touched on themes of accountability, of perspective, of loyalty. And, of course, of faith — of finding peace by relying on God. It dealt with hard topics, but the characters — well, Reuben, anyway, and likely Swede, too — grew stronger from their experiences because of their faith (or, probably more likely, the faith of their father).

This is the kind of book I could hear someone calling “a modern classic” — I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
720 reviews1,113 followers
October 7, 2017
This is a wonderful tale of the strength of family during hardships and struggle. The oldest child of Jeremiah Land - Davey gets into a fight with the local thugs when they break into his home and threaten the safety of his younger siblings. One of the two is killed and suddenly Davey is up for manslaughter. He hits the road, leaving his family with no clue where he's gone and how bad things will get if he is discovered.
If you can't stomach religion then maybe put this one aside as it has a heavy focus on the faith of Jeremiah and the miracles they witness while on their travels to find Davey.
As they say the journey is the destination - so it isn't so much the search for Davey as the things the family discover, the people they meet and the difficulties they overcome.
If you like stories set in the Southern states, where family is stronger than the law then this one is for you.
Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews335 followers
August 22, 2015
How do I write this to persuade the uninitiated how great Peace Like a River is without seeming like a freak?

A cursory glance at the synopsis should've had me running for the hills. At its core, its about good old-fashioned family values, faith (read: religion), and "miracles" (read: divine intervention). It also features Zane Grey/Louis L'amour-influenced epic poetry (as penned by a precocious 8 year-old), narration by an asthmatic 11 year-old, desperadoes and fugitives from the law like Butch Cassidy, Jesse James, and the Younger brothers. Meh. I don't like old-timey Westerns, I'm not much for precocious kids telling stories, and, well, as for the faith and miracles thing, this "Doubting Thomas" subscribes more to Jon Krakauer's school of thought:: "Faith is the very antithesis of reason".

(And, yet, were I to put Goodreads to use as it was intended and "shelve" my favorites, you'd find no less than three novels in my Top Ten with faith/spirituality as a centerpiece: David James Duncan's sublime The Brothers K and The River Why and John Irving's simply transcendent A Prayer for Owen Meany. And, so, with the latest contender for a spot on my top ten, Leif Enger's stunner makes four novels with spirituality at their nexus. Go figure.)

Peace Like a River is not exactly plot-heavy. (There's certainly a plot here, but it's one you'll want to drink in as the story and atmospherics envelop you). It's a story (set in the early 1960's in the cold, barren farmlands of Western Minnesota, and the even colder, even more barren Badlands of the Dakotas) of the Land family: narrator Reuben, an asthmatic fellow relaying the events of the book in retrospect; father Jeremiah, a mostly-ambitionless, schoolhouse janitor and ultra-pious disciple of God (and conduit to, or source of many of the aforementioned miracles); Reuben's younger sister Swede, whose poetry serves as parallel allegory to the actions of their older brother; and Davy, whose actions to defend his girlfriend and sister from a pair of thugs land him in jail...and worse.

Indelible characters (particularly Ruben, Swede and Jeremiah, as iconic as Scout, Jem, and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird) unforgetable dialogue, vivid you-are-there scenery, and a story to keep you turning the pages till the wee hours (yet slow enough to savor every sentence) are all components of a near-masterpiece. I urge you all to give Enger's 2001 (!) novel (his first of only two penned) a read, no matter your receptivity to stories of spirituality and faith (and the Old West) It's a keeper. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Cheri.
1,796 reviews2,389 followers
October 5, 2018
”When I was born to Helen and Jeremiah Land, in 1951, my lungs refused to kick in.

“My father wasn’t in the delivery room or even in the building…Dad had gone out to pace in the damp September wind. He was praying, rounding the block for the fifth time, when the air quickened. He opened his eyes and discovered he was running—sprinting across the grass toward the door.”

When his father made it to the room where Reuben lay, the doctor was holding his mother’s hand, saying that it had been unavoidable. And so, his father, ignoring the doctor’s words of condolence, lifted his son up gently, baby Reuben’s body already starting to cool, and simply said: ”Breathe.”

The doctor began to object, telling the father, Jeremiah, that it had been twelve minutes, those words that meant there was no chance for this infant. Jeremiah tells his newborn son, once more:
Again, the doctor insists, listing off the consequences of this long without oxygen.

”As mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, ‘Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling to breathe.’”

And so he did.

”I believe I was preserved, through those twelve airless minutes, in order to be a witness, and as a witness, let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.“

As the years pass, one after another, eventually he will come to have a younger sister, making Reuben the middle child between his older brother, Davy, and his younger sister, Swede. And for several years, they are a happy family of five. Their number drops to four when their mother leaves. And then there is an event that sets off another event, which lands Davy in jail.

Set in the early 1960’s in a rural area of Minnesota, this coming-of-age tale feels a bit like one part the story of The Prodigal Son, a son whose life choices have taken him far from them; one part a wild-west adventure with outlaws on horseback roaming the Badlands, hiding out in abandoned cabins and avoiding ‘the law’; and one part poetic folklore, particularly through the eyes of young Swede, a writer of epic romantic outlaw poems.

This is my second novel by Leif Enger, having recently read his newest novel which was published just three days ago, Virgil Wander, which I also loved, but I confess, I loved this one even more.

”I remember it as October days are always remembered, cloudless, maple-flavored, the air gold and so clean it quivers.”
Profile Image for Jessica.
850 reviews24 followers
January 10, 2012
I'm rereading this again for a book club I'm hosting. It is one of my all-time favorite books because it has GREAT writing, a wonderful message, a twisting plot and has laugh out loud parts. When people ask me for a book to read, this is the first one I recommend.
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,485 reviews843 followers
June 28, 2021
“He said, ‘Can you get out of the house without rousting everybody?’ Well, of course I could. I'd read as much Twain as the next boy.”

A crime, a fugitive, young children, a road trip, an adventure, a romance, terror, near-death-experiences, tragedy, and even cowboy poetry! What more could I possibly want? Oh yes, a small hint of magic, which we might believe but couldn't prove.

“The fact is, the miracles that sometimes flowed from my father's fingertips had few witnesses but me.”

Young Reuben Land is eleven, with terrible asthma. When he was born ”my lungs refused to kick in.” Twelve minutes without breathing, so the kindly doctor explained why some children don’t thrive. . .

“As Mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, ‘Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.’

Yes, he’s heard the story many times and not thought a lot about it really. When you’re a kid, you just accept the way things are. He accepts, for example, that his older brother Davey is a strong hero, learning to be a good hunter. He accepts that his little sister Swede is tough and strong-willed.

“Swede and I rarely quarreled, for I never held opinions in those days, and hers were never wrong.”

He accepts that he will always be the family weakling, his lungs like faulty bellows that have become “spongebound. Your breaths are sips, couldn't blow out the candle on a baby's cake.”

But Swede’s got enough get-up-and-go for the both of them. She’s smart, and she’s never at a loss for words, young as she is.

‘It worries me,’ I said.
‘How come?’ I couldn't put words to it, but Swede, as usual, could.
‘Afraid we're being impertinent?’
‘Presumptuous? Arrogant? Blasphemous?’

This still happens with Swede and me. I'll lack a word, and she'll dump out a bushel of them.

She has also become enamoured of Zane Grey paperbacks and fancies herself a cowgirl and a poet, so of course Reuben is her rapt audience, spurring her on (pardon the cowpoke jargon).

“What was Miss Nelson supposed to think when Swede, dimpled and blond, coming up on nine years old, handed in a poem like ‘Sunny Sundown Delivers the Payroll’.?
The men who worked the Redtail Mine were fed up with the boss.
They swarmed around his office door like blackflies round a hoss.
‘No wages these three months!’ one cried. ‘Let's hang the lousy rat!
He'll starve our very children, boys, while he himself gets fat!’

And true enough, behind the door, a fat man shook and wept;
The wobbling bags beneath his eyes said this man hadn't slept.
A messenger had brought him word that made him feel his age:
Valdez, last night—the third straight month!—had robbed the payroll stage.

Thus begins the long saga of Sunny Sundown and his quest to hunt down the evil Valdez as well as find himself the love of a good woman, and all the other delights this young girl can dream up. The main story is peppered with stanzas, not all in the same rhyme, and they are a delight. New characters appear as Swede takes out her frustration and impatience with the family's stalled quest in verse.

“Then up the tight street came a rider so sweet,
She was light as the dawn, and as free—
And her hair was as black as her stallion's back,
And she parted the crowd like a sea.”

Swede’s ballad carries on through the family’s hunt across the frozen, wind-swept Dakotas, and it is a very cold experience, so I suggest you enjoy it while you yourself are warm. It’s not only the cold that is breath-taking, but the fear and the danger are as well. Not Swede, but Reuben ends up on horseback, terrified. I have ‘slid’ like this downhill on horseback, and this describes it perfectly.

“If you've never essayed a decline like that on the back of a horse I don't know what to tell you. There's a separation from ground and a hopeless union with the animal as down you go—can't hear a thing but gravel clatter, absolutely can't steer. The mare laid her ears back, splayed her front feet, set haunches to earth, and slid.”

Here is what it looks like, but without the snow, although it’s a still from the movie, The Man From Snowy River. (Swede would have loved it!)

“But the man from Snowy River let the pony have his head,”

I’ve concentrated on the kids, because I loved them, but Dad and the other adults are every bit as engaging. Enger makes sure you understand who and what these people are. I’ll give one example of someone we might all like to know.

“There's no way a person can really prepare for someone like Mrs. DeCuellar. Buxom and businesslike on her doorstep, once she had you inside she became the woman you wish had lived next door all the days of your childhood. She was short, round, bright. At the age when most women begin putting up their hair, she wore hers long, for beauty, and it was beautiful—black and woolly, her very own buffalo robe. She had turquoise earrings and crisp metallic perfume; helping Swede off with her coat, she knelt and put her cheek to Swede's and held it there a moment before getting up; then she said, ‘Breakfast's ready, sweet ones,’ and marched us to the kitchen. It was fitting, that march; there was something about Mrs. DeCuellar that reminded you of a bass drum.”

And here’s another sort of character altogether.

“He was of unimposing height, under six feet. A practical build, big up top, one of those men you realize why it's called a chest—you had the feeling he had all the tools he needed in there and all in working order and daily use.”

A supremely satisfying read.

I read Enger’s 2018 novel Virgil Wander before I read this, and I loved it as well. I reviewed that here, if you’re interested. Link to my ‘Virgil Wander’ review

ON a different note, if you’d like to read the poem, The Man From Snowy River (and I recommend it!), here it is with no frills.

And if you’d like to see what it’s like to ride headlong, downhill, flat out, have a look. You give the horse their head, lie back, and hang on! (This is from the film where Jim is the only one who can turn the mob and bring them in. Nice music, even if the guy uploaded the clip with a typo on the website)

[p.s. Yes, I know this is long, but it' s not required reading. :) ]
Profile Image for Cindy Rollins.
Author 20 books2,153 followers
January 4, 2021
Just as beautiful as before. I enjoyed Chad Lowe's narration this time around.

Deeply moving, organically told tale with lovely character development. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews690 followers
September 8, 2020
Having just finished this author's Virgil Wander, I was keen to read more from him.  Reviews from a couple of GR friends convinced me to pick this up.  I admit the spiritual flavor was a tad more than is my preference, but I was already invested in the characters and the story.  Oh, and the writing.  Dang, I loved the writing.  A seemingly bottomless pot of potato chowder, 'a peevish wind', a river of horses, manes flowing, the sounds of an 'awakening barnyard'.     

It is astonishing to me that I have been reading on this book for over a week.  It wasn't from lack of enjoyment, that's for sure.  It's a story that is meant to be savored, certainly, and that must have been what I was doing.  The talent of this storyteller cannot be denied.
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book563 followers
April 19, 2017
I laughed; I cried. Real tears that streamed down my face and came from my heart. I loved each of these characters, invested in them, rooted for them, felt their pain (both physical and emotional), and feared for their bodies and their souls. Leif Enger is a superb writer.

I love books that are told from the point of view of adolescents when the writer is able to tell the tale without being overly dismissive or have the character be overly clever. Reuben Land is as balanced and clueless as Scout Finch. His little sister, Swede, is more perceptive, and it is because Reuben tells us this story with all the honest he can muster that we know that. He wavers between what is right and what is wrong, as indeed we all do, and especially when the welfare of those we love is in our hands. He makes wrong decisions, right decisions, and costly ones, and we labor with him over what he should do and pray that he chooses well. We watch the decisions of others with the same kind of apprehension and come to understand that every man and woman, boy and girl, is making decisions every minute of the day and gambling that, in the end, something beyond and above us has control and will put things right.

Can’t resist a couple of passages that I truly loved:

One carried by a lady you would walk on tacks for. Does this make her sound beautiful to you? Because she was--oh, yes. Though she hadn’t seemed so to me a week before, when she turned and faced us I was confused at her beauty and could only scratch and look down at my shoetops, as the dumbfounded have done through the centuries. Swede was wordless too, though later in an epic fervor she would render into verse Roxanna’s moment of transfiguration. I like the phrase, which hasn’t been thrown around that much since the High Renaissance, but truly I suppose that moment had been gaining on us, secretly, like a new piece of music played while you sleep. One day you hear it--a strange song, yet one you know by heart.

I believe I have had that kind of moment of realization. I is when you realize that the inner beauty of a being can influence the way you “see” them. BTW, for all you flawless beauties out there, it can go the other way as well.

One thing I wasn’t waiting for was a miracle.
I don’t like to admit it. Shouldn’t that be the last thing you release: the hope that the Lord God, touched in His heart by your particular impasse among all others, will reach down and do that work none else can accomplish--straighten the twist, clear the oozing sore, open the lungs? Who knew better than I that such holy stuff occurs? Who had more reason to hope?

If you have lost your ability to do so, this book might make you believe in miracles after all. I did not think it an accident that Jeremiah Land is called for the Biblical prophet Jeremiah, who was chosen by God as a leader of his people.
Profile Image for Tooter.
440 reviews183 followers
February 8, 2020
Why have I not heard of this book before? Why have I not heard of this author before? This is going on my 10 ten reads of a lifetime shelf. Goodreads friends, do not miss this book!
Profile Image for Karen.
593 reviews1,198 followers
December 13, 2016
This was such a great book! Don't miss this one!
Profile Image for Doug Bradshaw.
257 reviews222 followers
June 5, 2018
Nostalgic, chock-full of miracles, poetic, a beautiful coming of age story, the love of family and friends, tragic, beautifully written, this book has it all. A classic. Loved it.
Profile Image for Lorna.
719 reviews418 followers
September 5, 2020
Peace Like a River is a stunningly beautiful and memorable debut novel by author Lief Enger, that left me breathless and in tears. This classic tale is related by our eleven-year old narrator, Rueben Land, and assisted by his eight-year old sister Swede. Once immersed and in the rhythm of this sometimes sparse but beautiful prose, one becomes deeply involved in the tale of the Land family and the pull of family bonds and the resilience of those ties. Rueben Land is convinced that miracles abound and that his father, Jeremiah Land, is touched by grace; he has seen it. I first became aware of this book when it was selected by Mayor John Hickenlooper for his newly launched program, One Book One Denver, in 2001. Several years later, my grandson, at the time twelve-years old, spied it in my library one magical snowy winter evening spent in front of the fireplace, and he then began to regale us all with his synopsis and impressions of the book as he had just read it with his class. This is a book that comes with high praise and heartfelt recommendations. And this one is for you, Braeden!

"When I was born to Helen and Jeremiah Land, in 1951, my lungs refused to kick in. . . . . . . As Mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, 'Rueben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.'"

"So the spell of the West, cast already by Mr. Grey, settled about Swede like a thrown loop. There's magic in tack, as anyone knows who's been to horse sales, and a rubbed saddle, unexpected and pulled from nowhere, owns an allure only dolts resist. Swede's was a double-rigged Texan with red mohair cinches, tooled Mexican patterns on fender and skirt, and a hemp-worn pommel. It was well used, which I believe gave all of our imaginations a pleasing slap, and it had also arrived quixotically."

"Well, we all hold history differently inside us. For Swede such episodes retold themselves into a seamless and momentous narrative; she had a Homeric grasp on the significance of events, and still does; one of her recent letters asks, 'Is it hubris to believe we all live epics?'"

"It is one thing to be sick of your own infirmities and another to understand that people you love most are sick of them also. You are very near then to being friendless in this world."

"But in that dark hour I thought only that it had been a long time since Dad had charged me in the name of God to draw my first breath. Since he walked by grace above the earth or touched a worn saddle and healed it clean. And I thought, Without a miracle, exactly what chance do I have?"
Profile Image for Kerrin .
304 reviews227 followers
May 25, 2023
Pleasant Christian novel. Read for my May 2023 book club.
Profile Image for Robert Beveridge.
2,402 reviews162 followers
January 22, 2008
Leif Enger, Peace Like a River (Grove, 2001)

Oh, what has happened to Grove Press? The folks that made their name publishing scandalous novels by James Joyce, Henry Miller, William S. Burroughs, and the like publishing what may be the least controversial novel of the last ten years? It hurts my heart, folks, it really does. Please, Grove, stick to what you know.

It wouldn't be so bad if there were more about this piece of smarmy claptrap to like. I haven't decided whether this is a good thing or a bad thing yet (I'm grudgingly leaning towards the former). Enger's writing style allows for long lapses in anything actually happening. Just when I'm ready to throw the book against the wall, however, he perks right back up again and things start going well for a few pages, then it's back into the depths of... well, the void. That's about the only way I can put it.

Reuben Land is an asthmatic eleven-year-old (or, at least, he is in the novel; one of the more amusing things I'm finding about most reviews is that they seem to have skipped over the fact that he WAS an asthmatic eleven-year-old at the time of the novel, but he's telling the story as an adult, which makes the comparisons to To Kill a Mockingbird, Huck Finn, etc. specious at best) with a father who can perform miracles, a sister who's a writing prodigy, and a brother who's your basic teenager in the small-town American Midwest in 1962. After Reuben's father stops two town thugs from raping a girl, they seek revenge on the family. The teenager's reaction to this is what sets up the rest of the novel; it's probably not a spoiler any more, but I won't say anything just in case.

The plotline with Davy (the teenager) is by far the most interesting thing about the novel. When Enger is writing this, his prose rises off the page and compels the reader to keep going. Unfortunately, it's a minor point in the general scheme of things; Enger seems far more interested in writing an episode of Seventh Heaven where the family's father is actually Jesus. Except Seventh Heaven, for all its many many faults, has more wit, more compassion, and less preaching than does Peace Like a River.

I was willing to give this mess two stars, mostly because Enger can write well when he tries, and a couple of his characters are perfectly drawn, but then I got to the ending. Of all the endings I would have projected for this novel, Enger took the most predictable, most syrupy-sweet, most clichéd ending he possibly could, then tried to pass it off and something epic and grandiose. Even if the rest of the book had been perfect, the ending is such a miserable failure that I'd recommend skipping the whole novel, unless you seek out smarminess and predictability.

The purpose of a great novel is to challenge the reader, make the reader think, open the reader's eyes and make the reader look at things from a new perspective. All in all, I can't say I've come across another book this year that fails so miserably in all those capacities as does Peace Like a River. * ½
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,049 reviews48.7k followers
December 15, 2013
"Peace Like a River" opens with the narrator's stillbirth. "My lungs refused to kick in," Reuben writes in a moment that's at once terrifying and reassuring. While the doctor mumbles platitudes and his mother wails, Reuben's father senses that something's wrong. He sprints across the parking lot, back into the hospital, up into the room, and punches the doctor to get to his limp son. "Reuben Land," he commands, "in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe."

How wonderful that the word "inspiration" refers to filling the lungs with air and the soul with motivation. This first novel by Leif Enger draws its life from that holy pun. It's a rich atmosphere of adventure, tragedy, and healing that will make you breathe faster and deeper.

Reuben tackles skeptics in the first scene: "Real miracles bother people," he writes, "like sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule us good citizens take comfort in.... A miracle contradicts the will of earth. My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: people fear miracles because they fear being changed - though ignoring them will change you also."

What follows is the remarkable story of Reuben's 11th year. He lives with his precocious younger sister, his strong-willed older brother, Davy, and their saintly father in a small Minnesota town in the early 1960s.

Their mother abandoned them years before, probably out of frustration that her husband, Jeremiah, had no worldly ambition. Seen only through the lens of his son's adulation, the end of that marriage is difficult to explain, but we know it went bad soon after a life-threatening accident transported Jeremiah in more ways than one.

Now, he cares for his children with quiet devotion and works at the public school as a janitor. Looking back at those years, Reuben confesses some moments of shame about his father's vocation, but he's bursting with wonder to tell about the events he witnessed in their home.

Despite his humble life, Jeremiah commands powers that stem from his profoundly active faith. "He had laid up prayer as if with a trowel," Reuben writes. Hours spent reading the Bible and talking with God allow him to effect sudden cures, stretch small meals, and even, in one of the book's most gorgeous scenes, walk above a field of thistles. The style isn't so much "magical realism" as "spiritual realism."

I know what you're thinking: It has a kind of clammy "Touched by an Angel" feel. But it's saved by Reuben's raw honesty and the novel's bracing vitality. "A miracle is no cute thing," he writes, "but more like the swing of a sword." So is Reuben's voice - slicing away the sweet fat that could have made this story nauseating.

Trouble breaks into their lives when Jeremiah interrupts some young thugs trying to rape his son's girlfriend. He beats them pretty savagely with a broomstick, and in the process incurs the wrath of a couple of characters who scare even the local police.

Unfortunately, they don't scare his older son, who remains a heroic silhouette throughout the novel. Davy picks up the challenge where his father won't and continues to feud with his girlfriend's assailants. Acts of vandalism lead to acts of kidnapping, then assault, and finally murder.

Davy's arrest splits the town. Few openly sympathize with the late thugs, but many are quietly pleased to see pious Jeremiah taken down a step or two. Davy's siblings, however, are unwavering in their devotion. The morning of the trial, before Swede and Reuben can implement their ludicrous plan to break Davy from jail, he escapes on his own.

It's a foolish, illegal move, of course, but beyond that, it's a rejection of his father's faith. Davy loves his dad, but he finds the concept of an omnipotent God as claustrophobic as the cell. "Davy wanted life to be something you did on your own," Reuben writes. "The whole idea of a protective fatherly God annoyed him."

Guided only by Jeremiah's prayers, the family sets out into the Badlands of North Dakota, searching for Davy, eluding the police, and nursing Reuben through increasingly severe attacks of asthma. The romantic Western tone of this quest is stirred and even satirized by the epic poem Swede writes along the way about a brave cowboy who wrestles with outlaws and the law:

The blizzard shipped in from the west like a grin

On a darkened, malevolent face,

And the posse that sought Mr. Sundown was caught

In an awfully dangerous place.

That a 9-year-old composes this poem is perhaps the book's most challenging miracle, but like so many other unlikely details here, Reuben forces us to believe with the power of his disarming exuberance. You can't help but resonate with the delight he takes in this story.

Enger has written a novel that's boldly romantic and unabashedly appealing, a collage of legends from sources sacred and profane - from the Old Testament to the Old West, from the Gospels to police dramas. But Reuben's search for his brother is ultimately the search to understand the nature of a father's miraculous love. It's a journey you simply must not miss.

Profile Image for Becky Rhoads.
6 reviews3 followers
May 12, 2008
Just finished this book. Highly recommend it! It is a very creative story, full of wonderful prose, and characters you come to love, admire and hate. Very interesting spiritual theme running throughout the book. It is clear the author has some understanding of the miraculous! This is certainly not a story that has what we would call a happy ending, but surprises you and on some level it makes sense. And the ending is not even the most important thing - it is walking the journey with these characters that brings joy in the reading, and though it is fiction, they seem as real as anyone we might know.

One of my favorite parts of the book is near the beginning, soon after the main character, an 11 year old boy named Reuben, is born and lives though the dr. who delivered him pronounced him dead when his lungs failed to inflate. I knew I would like the book after reading these lines:

"Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week - a miracle, people say, as if they've been educated from greeting cards. I'm sorry, but nope.
Such things are worth our notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strength of word. Real miracles bother people . . . they rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing out of the grave - now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks . . . A miracle contradicts the will of the earth. My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed - though ignoring them will change you also."

Read it!
Profile Image for Dana.
201 reviews
September 29, 2017
This book is definitely one of my favorites! Highly recommend!

I hope to catch up on my reviews next week.....sigh....
Profile Image for Sharon Metcalf.
735 reviews166 followers
August 1, 2019
4.5 stars

Peace Like A River is the second novel I've read by the highly talented Leif Enger and it most definitely will not be my last. He truly is a gifted writer delivering magical phraseology and a charming way with words.

In the hands of a different author this may have been a gruesome story, perhaps even a dismal one yet Enger produced an exceptional character driven tale filled with hope and possibility. He perfectly captured the essence of Rueben (Rube) the 11 year old narrator as he navigated his way through the pivotal events of a family trauma and his life threatening asthma.

It is clear Rueben adores his family. They are a faith driven bunch, lead by the word of the Lord and if we are to believe him, his father has been known to work miracles. His admiration for younger sister Swede, is apparent every time he mentions her. In fact, if I took his accounts at face value, I'd say she was a child prodigy. For a nine year old girl she seemed highly literate with a rare wisdom. Rube clearly adored, perhaps even idolised, older brother Davy and desperately misses him. At 17, Davy took the law into his own hands when two boys continually threatened the safety and wellbeing of his family. Having been charged with murder Davy escaped the holding cells and went on the run. Much of the story revolves around the impact of these events on their family.

Rueben was a highly likeable character, as was his family - even his outlaw brother Davy. The story flowed like a gently meandering river yet it was not without rapids. There was so much to like about this book and at the top of the list was the writing. Thanks to my GR friend Celia for directing me toward this book. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and highly recommend it.
Profile Image for Katie Ziegler (Life Between Words).
396 reviews961 followers
November 22, 2017
This was a reread of a favorite. I absolutely loved it as much this time around as I did the first. Beautiful. Poignant. Full of tragedy, heartbreak, healing, love, and profound faith. It feels a little like a western, and a lot like a “great American novel” - and it’s filled with iconic lovable characters. And if Swede isn’t reminiscent of Scout Finch...well, go reread To Kill a Mockingbird. A story about a father’s love for his children, siblings love for one another, growing up, and miracles. It’s slow moving without being boring, tragic without being distressing, and sweet without being saccharine. Between the writing and the characters and the storytelling it is by far the most beautiful book I’ve ever read. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Profile Image for Maggie Stiefvater.
Author 81 books168k followers
November 16, 2009
It's been weeks since I read this book, and yet I keep forgetting to write a review for it. Why? Well, for starters, I usually have the book around and its presence reminds me to review it. Not so with this novel, which I have bought three times while traveling for my own novel, and given away twice before I could get it home with me. It's just that kind of book, where you want to go "oh man, take this."

To call it a Western is to scare off everyone who finds Clint Eastwood a little bit of a turn off. No, this is an atmospheric novel about a family split by unusual circumstances: Davy, the eldest son, shoots two intruders in the night and goes into hiding from the law. Told from the point of view of Davy's younger brother, Reuben, the story is spiritual, heartbreaking, and joyful. The care that Leif Enger takes with the sibling relationship is stunning; all of the relationships in this book are done with a sort of flawless subtlety. The humor is also subtle and occasionally -- surprisingly -- laugh-out-loud.

The last third of the book meanders more than I would like, but I'm afraid the characters (oh Swede!) are just too fantastic for me to not give this four stars. Because it will be a reread. I promise you that. I highly recommend you go out and buy it (if I haven't managed to give you a copy first).

***wondering why all my reviews are five stars? Because I'm only reviewing my favorite books -- not every book I read. Consider a novel's presence on my Goodreads bookshelf as a hearty endorsement. I can't believe I just said "hearty." It sounds like a stew.***
Profile Image for Margitte.
1,177 reviews540 followers
June 16, 2021
Roofing, Minnesota.
What can I say? It's a Minnesota-logue again. Like William Kent Krueger's Ordinary Grace . In spirit and soul. Kind of epic, I thought. And then remembered Reuben Land, our protagonist's words:
Well, we all hold history differently inside us. For Swede such episodes retold themselves into a seamless and momentous narrative; she had a Homeric grasp on the significance of events, and still does; one of her letters asks, Is it hubris to believe we all live epics? (perhaps it is but I suspect she's not actually counting on me for an answer.) Dad, he himeelf would say, was baptized by that tornado into a life of new ambitions─interpreted by many, including my mother, as a life of no ambitions.

Once in my life I knew a grief so hard I could actually hear it inside, scraping at the lining of my stomach, an audible ache, dredging with hooks as rivers are dredged when someone’s been missing too long.

The thing is: the tornado sucked Jeremiah Land right out of his socks, the Dewey Hall, his home and his destiny. Presumed dead, everybody thought. Until a Mrs. Marianne Evans phoned Mrs. Jeremiah Land and told her about the gentlemen sitting on their porch steps, four miles out of town, claiming to be Mrs. Jeremiah Land's husband.

Only Jeremiah could befall a miracle like that, thought Reuben. His dad always had special powers. Like the day of Reuben's birth when the doctor told the parents to say goodbye to their stillborn baby. Jeremiah did not agree. He was right. Miracles happened in Jeremiah's life. Not a dime a dozen, no. More like a steady stream of little incidences, and sometimes big ones, only Reuben observed. The tornado was only one. There were many yet to come.

December of '62 was an epic season for the Land family. It was when the snow drifts eventually rose past the kitchen window, and up the very eaves of the Land household.

November 24th, 1962, was also the day sixteen-year-old Davy Land escaped from the Montrose County jail with a Houdini maneuver and vanish into thin air. It left eleven-year-old Reuben, and his eight-year-old autodidactic wonder kid sister named Swede speechless. For once. He was arrested for a double murder.

Pride is the rope God allows us all
So, in January 1963, the Land family, with the devoted readers in tow, left Roofing for the buckets full of horizon in the Dakota Badlands.

Once traveling, it’s remarkable how quickly faith erodes. It starts to look like something else—ignorance, for example. Same thing happened to the Israelites. Sure it’s weak, but sometimes you’d rather just have a map.

Off we went in the green Plymouth wagon, pulling a twenty-foot Airstream trailer. Yes, into the Badlands of North Dakota, like Butch Cassidy, Mr. Younger, Sam Bass. All wanted men. All pursued by law. As was the Land family. It was a good a place as any. Perhaps Davy was there too.

Hope is like yeast, you know, rising under warmth.
Yes, hope would keep the plot going. Until...the very symbolic end.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. There's nothing more I want to add. The experience nestled deep inside me. I was floored, awed and bought. Convincingly. I hope you will be too.


GR suggests these books as similar. Good to know. Maybe time will make it possible to explore.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,854 followers
July 14, 2010
Once in a distant while there comes a novel that brings me to tears as I turn its final pages. It is the combination of a compelling story, vital characters, and sublime writing that fill me with awe at the writer's ability and sorrow in bidding farewell to such a treasure. Wallace Stegner's Crossing to Safety, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird are a few that have made a powerful impact.

Leif Enger's Peace Like A River touched me in a similar way. Less so for some of the story's elements, such as the Messianic qualities assigned to Jeremiah that clanged out of harmony with his more earthly physical and emotional fragility, or Davy's experiences at a South Dakota hideout that seemed to be lifted straight from Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain Appalachia.

But what writing. Boy oh boy. There were sections I read several times, wanting to snip them out and paste in a scrapbook of perfect phrasing, perfect sentences and paragraphs (I'm all about sentences now, thanks to Francine Prose!). The characters, from fully-formed Reuben and Swede to the more peripheral such as Dr. Nokes, Superintendent Holgren, lawyer DeCuellar and his angel of a wife, were flesh and blood in my mind's eye- voices I could hear, faces I could see, souls that were as open or as guarded as any in real life. The story was an homage to Americana, to the romance of the American west, and to the voices of children who have spoken through some of our nation's greatest writers: James Agee, Mark Twain, Harper Lee, Betty Smith, Maya Angelou, Salinger, Steinbeck.

I'm late to the party in reading Peace Like A River- it was published in 2001 - so a little late in recommending this as a book club pick. It's probably been picked to death! But there are many themes- loyalty, justification for violence, Christianity, magic, loss of innocence and longing for a simpler time and simpler way of life-that would be great fodder for discussion.


Need some time to let this settle in, but without a doubt this is one of the most soul-touching books I've read in a good long while.
Profile Image for Joy D.
2,065 reviews239 followers
July 29, 2020
“No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, here’s what I saw. Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.” – Leif Enger, Peace Like a River

In 1962, single dad Jeremiah Land and his three children, Davy, Reuben, and Swede, live in Roofing, Minnesota. Jeremiah is a devout Christian who relies on divine guidance. Reuben, the story’s eleven-year-old narrator, believes his father performs miracles. He suffers from asthma and wonders why his father’s miracles have never cured him. After two bullies assault Davy’s girlfriend, kidnap Swede, and break into their house, Davy shoots them. He is arrested but escapes jail. The family and a federal agent pursue him to the Badlands of North Dakota.

This is the story of a family. They want to love and protect Davy while realizing there should be consequences to his actions. Reuben’s character is particularly well developed. His young age enables him to recount events with a tenderness and vulnerability. It is violent and gruesome in places. As the story proceeds, there are several surprises in store for the reader.

Themes include ramifications of decisions, faith, loss of innocence, and family loyalty. It functions as an allegory, a tragedy, and a western-themed adventure. It explores questions of ethics that do not have clear-cut answers. I particularly enjoyed the atmospheric descriptions of the landscapes and the caring interactions between the father and his children.
Profile Image for Lisa.
228 reviews17 followers
September 1, 2008
Among the many glowing reviews for Peace Like a River, there is this:

"Peace Like a River serves as a reminder of why we read fiction to begin with: to commune with a vividly, lovingly rendered world, to lose ourselves in story and language and beauty, to savor what we don't want to end yet know must."

I would add that I read to meet and know fascinating characters. At any rate, the reviewer got it right — Peace Like a River by Leif Enger, has all this and more.

Character: Reuben Land, an 11-year-old boy who suffers from asthma, is the book's narrator, looking back through the lenses of memory and adulthood. His younger sister Swede is a virtuoso in heroic verse on Old Western outlawry. She is so precocious that at first I wondered if the author had ever met an 8 year old, but Swede's family is crazy about her, and I soon found her entirely lovable. Their father, Jeremiah, a promising medical student-turned janitor, has an unusually conversational relationship with the Lord. It's not just that he's devoutly religious, or even particularly eccentric. He holds dialogue with God that no one else is privy to (including the reader), at one point even going toe-to-toe in what appears to be an actual physical struggle. (He doesn't win.) Oh, and did I mention he works miracles? There are more characters of course, but these are the ones we get to know best. This family of "tender-hearted stoics" (another reviewer's phrasing) is drawn with such care and affection that they seem real — and wonderful. You want to bring them home and warm them up and feed them and, above all, listen to their story.

World: The novel is set in the northern Great Plains during the harshest of winters, a place that is not hard to imagine for someone blessed to live in the temperate Pacific Northwest only because of the author's skill in describing winds so severe they create blizzards when it's not snowing, and temperatures so cold that 19° is considered "brisk." It's a great backdrop for the story, and the perfect contrast to a wondrous glimpse of the afterlife that comes late in the book.

Story: Reuben's older brother Davy has been charged with murder, having shot and killed two boys who broke into their home with intent to do harm. When the trial takes a turn for the worse, Davy breaks out of jail and goes on the lam. His family follows him into the Badlands of North Dakota, a hostile world of superlative cold and also of fire and brimstone. They meet both comfort and tragedy along the way, and the story's conclusion shows the redemptive power of love and faith and family.

Language: Leif Enger has an exceptional talent with language. The tone is conversational, and the word choice is always spot-on. The language is surprisingly literary, employing such wisdom and clarity that sometimes I found myself reading a sentence over and over to let it roll around and sink in. He even makes up his own words sometimes, like "grayscape" and "smouch" which I think means "to swipe," as in, "I smouched some gingersnaps."

And that leaves beauty. There is beauty in the language, in the place and time the language evokes, in character and in theme. It's a wise and thoughtful and faith-inducing book.

I really liked this one. And it did remind me why I read fiction. It's a miracle of a book and I heartily recommend it.
Profile Image for Holly R W.
358 reviews39 followers
June 25, 2023
'Peace Like a River' is a book about the Land family: father Jeremiah and his children, Davy, Reuben and Swede. Reuben, all of 11 years old, is the narrator and events are described from his point of view. Simply put, Reuben's older brother Davy runs afoul of the law, which changes everything for them.

I found the family members to be charming. The father, Jeremiah, is a man of faith, who has performed miracles on occasion. He is also, utterly kind. Davy is less than charming - At 16 years old, he has strong ideas and thinks of himself as an adult. Reuben is a mixture of naivete, gullibility and sweetness. He also has asthma, which figures prominently in the story. Nine year old Swede is a bundle of spunk and moxie. Reuben freely acknowledges that she is far brighter than him. Swede also has a love of the outlaws of the Old West and spends a lot of time writing poetry about them. All of the characters held my interest.

When brother Davy goes on the lam, his family sets off to find him. The author chronicles their adventures with a combination of playfulness and inventiveness, which I enjoyed. There are a number of surprises in the book that I'll leave off mentioning for other readers to find.

4.5 stars
Profile Image for Petra.
1,147 reviews16 followers
March 24, 2015
Absolutely perfect from first page to last. It's been ages since I've thought that about a book.
I loved all the characters, as well as the story, which centers around the perspective of witnessing, loyalty, family ties, faith, character and miracles.
This book spans a short time period (maybe a half- or three quarters-year) but it's so packed with story and life that it seems to span years.
The writing is beautiful, with humour throughout.
I highly recommend this book. Loved it.
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