Born with no air in his lungs, it was only when Reuben Land’s father, Jeremiah, picked him up and commanded him to breathe that Reuben’s lungs filled. Reuben struggles with debilitating asthma from then on, making him a boy who knows firsthand that life is a gift, and also one who suspects that his father is touched by God and can overturn the laws of nature.The quiet 1960’s midwestern life of the Lands is upended when Reuben’s brother Davy kills to marauders who have come to harm the family. The morning of his sentencing, Davy — a hero to some, a cold-blooded murderer to others — escapes from his cell, and the Lands set out in search of him. Their journey is touched by serendipity and the kindness of strangers, and they cover territory far more extraordinary than even the Badlands where they search for Davy from their Airstream trailer. Sprinkled with playful nods to Biblical tales, beloved classics such as Huckleberry Finn, the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the westerns of Zane Grey, Peace Like A River is at once a heroic quest, a tragedy, a love story, and a haunting meditation on the possibility of magic in the everyday world.
To the list of great American child narrators that includes Huck Finn and Scout Finch, let us now add Reuben “Rube” Land, the asthmatic 11-year-old boy at the center of Leif Enger’s remarkable first novel, Peace Like a River. Rube recalls the events of his childhood, in small-town Minnesota circa 1962, in a voice that perfectly captures the poetic, verbal stoicism of the northern Great Plains. “Here’s what I saw,” Rube warns his readers. “Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.” And Rube sees plenty. In the winter of his 11th year, two schoolyard bullies break into the Lands’ house, and Rube’s big brother Davy guns them down with a Winchester. Shortly after his arrest, Davy breaks out of jail and goes on the lam. Swede is Rube’s younger sister, a precocious writer who crafts rhymed epics of romantic Western outlawry. Shortly after Davy’s escape, Rube, Swede, and their father, a widowed school custodian, hit the road too, swerving this way and that across Minnesota and North Dakota, determined to find their lost outlaw Davy. In the end it’s not Rube who haunts the reader’s imagination, it’s his father, torn between love for his outlaw son and the duty to do the right, honest thing. Enger finds something quietly heroic in the bred-in-the-bone Minnesota decency of America’s heartland. Peace Like a River opens up a new chapter in Midwestern literature. –Claire Dederer