Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
My sister has some credibility when it comes to recommending books. The last one she told me I had to read was Gilead, and I was not disappointed. It was iridescent. So when she delivered another novel about family and love and God set in yesterday’s Midwest, I dutifully put it in the basket beside my bed to ignore for a few months—but not forget. And I eventually got around to it.
Leif Enger creates a family, a single father and his three children in a small Minnesota town, and writes their meandering tale beginning with an abortive act of violence through escalation to the eldest son’s irrevocable act of retaliation (or perhaps preventative justice) and exile. All of this takes place in roughly the first third of the book. The rest is the father and the remaining two kids going to find the lost son.
In grittier hands this would be a tale of a family broken, of the ideals of pacifism playing out against darker realities in a strained relationship between father and son, maybe something like We Were the Mulvaneys. But Enger’s not going to go in that direction. There is murder, at several points throughout the book, and injustice, maybe even some suffering; but from the first page you realize this is a Christian novel, set in a Christian world with a Christian protagonist and by gum it’s going to have a good, Christian ending (and not some ambiguous Catholic ending either).
But, like I said, my sister recommended it. So I kept reading. And to be fair, Enger has a knack for creating characters and (when he’s not laying it on too thick) bringing the bleak beauty of the Midwest to life.
There are a lot of things going on in the novel. The most poignant for me was the characterization of the narrator—the middle son—and his relationship with his exiled older brother and his younger sister. This was where the story felt real. I admire anyone who can bring such a depth of characterization to a tale.
As far as the plot goes, there are snatches of courtroom drama, road trip narrative, romance, a touch of mystery, and—a bit incongruous but not unexpected—eschatology. There’s also a pleasant under-layer of Western lore communicated through the stories and poetry of the younger sister. The language is lovely if at times heavy-handed. The plot drifts but never slowed enough to lose me, though there were moments when the narrative structure was strained. The novel’s superficial villain, for instance, becomes a superficial friend, only to disappear and be randomly murdered off-scene.
My biggest difficulty was with the character of Jeremiah Land, the father who is in many respects the hero of the novel. Imagine a cross between Atticus Finch and Old Testament Elijah. Land is the pole-star of the narrative, the hinge on which everything else turns, and the way that Enger handled this character is what makes this work to me sit firmly in the camp of “Christian literature” (i.e. something you might see on the shelf at Family Christian Stores beside a lighthouse painting and a Precious Moments display.)
In one of the novel’s first episodes, the narrator witnesses his father praying several feet off the ground. If that sounds bizarre, it’s mediated a bit by the fact that the narrator is explaining all this through the haze and hagiography of a nine-year-old remembering his father. Miracles follow Land around throughout the novel: he is carried off by a tornado but lands unharmed, he has a good measure of prescience, and he heals people (specifically his enemies) with a touch. He works as a janitor. He’s humble. He’s good. He’s strong. He’s kind.
A child’s recollection of a saintly father is one thing. And a flat character is not necessarily a bad thing. What was more difficult for me in this book was what Land’s character said about Enger’s God—or rather, the independent, self-reliant, American Midwestern ideal of God. Jeremiah Land is a man alone, at times against the world, but his confidence comes from experience: his God is always the big guy upstairs who has his back and tells him what to do.
The irony is that Enger creates a tale in which a man like Land is faced with what would seem to be a huge challenge: a horrific act that has fractured their family and called his own ideals into question. At the very least it seems there would be some self-reflection. Some soul-searching. Some transformation of character. But there doesn’t seem to be any growth or change or introspection or foundational shifts at play throughout the novel. No one ends up seeing the world in a different way. Simply dig a bit deeper in the King James Bible and wrestle a bit harder in prayer, and things will work out. (And even if they work out [spoilers!] with you dead—no worries, we get a glimpse of paradise.) There’s no loss in this novel, no ambiguity. Characters end the novel with the same opinions, the same outlook and perspectives, that they had when the book opened. That includes everyone we get to know: the narrator, his sister, Land, and the exiled son. The peripheral characters, those who enter Land’s orbit, never get developed; they simply become obliging satellites to Land’s sanctity.
The events at the beginning of this novel set it up to be jarring, to give you some things to wrestle with. But nothing really comes of it. Ultimately you get some good stuff in a good book, just sort of jangling around, with a feel-good God.
She has The Remains of the Day next on the list for me. My hopes are a bit higher.