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Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River - Leif Enger 1951 is the year of Reuben Land’s miraculous birth. He did not breathe for the first twelve minutes of his life, not until he was commanded to breathe by his father, Jeremiah Land! Dr. Nokes thought he was dead, after so long a time, or at the very least, brain damaged. None of his fears were realized, although Reuben was severely asthmatic. Narrated by Reuben Land, the story begins in 1962, when he is 11 years old.
Written with a light hand, the book will often make you smile in agreement with the simple statements. It takes place in a time without computers, but rather, a time of typewriters, in the Midwest where life was simpler, but harder, where lives were tossed about by the caprices of nature. Alternately humorous and serious, anchored in reality or drifting into the supernatural, it feels like Cormac McCarthy or Ivan Doig, at times, one in style and the other in context.
Abandoned by their mother, who could not bear to stay with a dreamer, a husband scarred by his tornadic experience from which he emerged unharmed, yet somehow changed so that from medical student he goes to odd jobs as a man bereft of the ambition he once had, to a gentle, thoughtful and religious man with simpler needs, the Land children are raised by their father, a man who seems to have some fantastic powers. There is the possibility that he can perform miracles! All of the children seem old beyond their years and far more capable and responsible than children today, of the same age, and assume responsibilities of adults when the need arises.
When son Davy, 16 years old, shoots and kills the two boys who terrorized his girlfriend Dolly, and his sister, Swede, who was just short of 9 years old at the time, the two boys who vandalized their home and then returned again in the middle of the night to attack them with baseball bats, because Jeremiah beat both of them off Dolly when they attacked her in the girl’s locker room of the school where he worked as a janitor, the Lands are abandoned by all they know, except for two or three devoted friends.
Davy, unremorseful and unrepentant, is arrested. He believes they got what they deserved. They were bullies who preyed on those weaker than them. One was the mastermind, an ex-reformatory inmate, the other a simpleton who knew no better and only wanted a friend. He is appointed a public defender but will do little in his own defense. At first, the media portray him as a hero, but then, they turn on him. Although the book is written in 2002, the media’s behavior is reminiscent of the reporters who portrayed the hero, Richard Jewell, in the 1996 Summer Olympics bombing in Atlanta, in glowing terms, but then turned on him and made him into the monster who planted the bomb, although, it turned out, he was totally innocent. It is also reminiscent of the more recent 2013 case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin, in which the media portrayed one as an innocent 11 year old child, although he was indeed, the 17 year old victim, and the other is portrayed as a profiling racist, even after a jury found he acted in self-defense and found no evidence that he profiled the victim. In those cases, as in the case of Davy Land, the media took on a life of its own, simply to make headlines, not to serve justice. In the book, as in reality now, people were afraid to voice their true feelings because of fear, they still had to live with the families of the bullies and feared reprisals from their community. When the media turned on Davy, no one even bothered to question why these two young boys were in the Land home in the middle of the night, as they lay sleeping, they just judged the Lands for Davy’s crime. The nastiest side of humanity nature took hold, justice was not the issue, but rather vengeance became the common call, and attaining popularity and power was the imperative. To keep “one” safe, the cruel behavior of the victims somehow became acceptable as they were portrayed as “innocent” children.
Throughout the story, Swede, old and intelligent beyond her years, writes a concurrent poem about Sundown, a hero, who fights the villain Valdez. The symbolism is everywhere as you read her poems. There are so many themes evident in the telling of this story without being hit over the head with them. Heroism, forgiveness, faith, atonement, devotion, loyalty, family values, redemption, repentance, remorse, materialism, marriage, faithfulness, obligation, morality, ambition, are just some of the many values that are touched upon and inspire the reader to further thought in this wonderful tale about life.