Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

// Book Review //

Set in the countryside of Minnesota and the Badlands of North Dakota during the early 1960’s… The above is how a traditional review begins, however, Peace Like a River is not your average book. To concentrate solely on the plot summary of this book would be both unfortunate and an injustice to Enger’s lush, detailed, nuanced writing. The beauty of Enger’s writing lies both on the page and also between the lines. Why did I wait so long to read this amazing novel?

Peace Like a River has many layers to uncover - so many layers that I wanted to just reflect on the book for a while before attempting to write a paltry review. Despite the depth of Enger’s storytelling, Peace Like a River is not a hard book to read. It is a slow-burn that leaves you with complete fulfillment. The messages are waiting to be discovered and the only requirement asked of the reader is to simply be willing to see and receive the story.

This novel is filled with love and hate, kindness and cruelty, wisdom and ignorance, faith and unbelief, good and evil, joy and sadness, but most of all, love, forgiveness and hope. Enger deftly and expertly addresses themes of family, faith, sacrifice, redemption, miracles, bravery, justice, heaven, storytelling (Swede’s outlaw story-within-a-story is fabulous!), consequences, loyalty, burdens, divine provision, kindness, loss, media sensationalism and divine intervention.

There is so much I would like to say, however, I would rather you experience Peace Like a River for yourself. If you have already read this book, I am always happy to talk about it! Did you enjoy this book? What are your thoughts?

Collection of My Favorite Quotes from Peace Like a River:

“Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it's been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. 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.” 

“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.” 

“Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?
No sir.
All I can do is say, Here's how it went. Here's what I saw.
I've been there and am going back.
Make of it what you will.” 

“We see a newborn moth unwrapping itself and announce, Look, children, a miracle! But let an irreversible wound be knit back to seamlessness? We won't even see it, though we look at it every day.” 

“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.” 

“Yes, yes sir—routine is worry’s sly assassin.” 

“Is it hubris to believe we all live epics?” 

Interesting Leif Enger Interview Excerpts:

From a Writers & Books interview:

W&BPeace Like a River is a novel about faith, among other things. How does the faith of Reuben and his father Jeremiah, for example, parallel your own experience?

Enger: You grow up inside the faith of your family, which is Christianity in both Reuben’s and mine. For most of us there’s a time when you must decide whether that faith is true or false; you accept it as yours, as something to be nurtured and guarded, or you cut ties and go looking for truth elsewhere. You are deciding who and whose you will be in this world. I wanted Reuben, in his sickness and his loyalty to both Davy and Jeremiah, to come up against these questions—before he wanted to, probably before he was ready to. That sort of drama is rare at the age of eleven; I know I had much more time than that, and easier circumstances, but we came to the same conclusions.

W&B: Several times in the book Reuben, after a “miracle”has occurred, tells the reader, “Make of it what you will.”Is this possibly a disavowal of the truth of the family’s history from the voice of the adult Reuben who is writing the story from the future? Or is it more of what one reviewer called an example of the “verbal stoicism of the northern Great Plains”? What are you advising readers to believe?

Enger: The lovely part of being a witness is that you can’t compel belief. All you can do is say: here is what happened. In saying this the witness is only doing his job; how people respond is their own burden, their own responsibility. Whom would you say has more credibility: the man who pounds on the table insisting his story is true, or the one who, having the reputation of honesty, frees his listeners to decide for themselves?”

From an interview by Mark LaFramboise:

“Q: Magic plays such a great role in this story. Is it important that we as readers believe the veracity of these events: e.g. the tornado, Jeremiah walking off a platform into space, Reuben's journey to the beyond, to name a few, or just that Reuben believes?

A: I hope even skeptical readers will enjoy the novel, but my own suspicion is that miracles, big obvious ones as well the more comfortable variety (kittens in springtime, Puckett's homer in Game Six) are underway around us. I was raised to this belief and have as yet no proof that it is not so. Why lessen our joy by throwing out what the author of Hebrews called "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"?

Quotes from Book Page Interview by Alden Mudge in 2001

Leif Enger on Treasure Island:

“And then there is Robert Louis Stevenson. Mom read us Treasure Island every year for many years, starting before I was old enough to understand any of it. It was confusing to me, but I loved it. I loved the play of words. I loved the language. He was a strikingly contemporary writer for the time; he was ahead of his time. He's my favorite writer of all time. I just love his poems, his great adventure tales, his brand of moral fiction." 

Leif Enger on Sunny Sundown:

“Then, finally, at the very end of our conversation, Enger describes one of those unexpected moments when creative opportunity presents itself: ‘I was about 20 pages into the manuscript and was working on it early one morning when my youngest son, John, got up and came toddling in in his pajamas. He said: 'How's it going, Dad?' I said: 'It's going pretty well.' He said: 'You got any cowboys in that book yet?' And I said: 'No, not yet. But that's a fabulous idea. You think I should?' And he said: 'Yes!' I said: 'Well if you could give me a good name, I'll put a cowboy in the book.' And he said: 'Sunny Sundown.' No hesitation. Sunny Sundown. He'd been thinking about Sunny, apparently, for a while. I just happened to be at a spot where I could take off into it. By the end of the day the first few stanzas of Sunny were written and I just never looked back.’"

From an interview with Jody Ewing:

“What do you want the title to convey, and were there other alternatives?

‘I was sitting in church one morning — a Sunday morning — and we were singing this hymn called ‘It Is Well With My Soul,’ and the first stanza of the hymn goes:

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It’s a beautiful old hymn that you find in lots of different hymnals, and that phrase just jumped out at me. I was just starting to think about this book at the time, and I thought, ‘what a marvelous book title that is,’ and it just seemed to personify something about the book: a peacefulness, the sadness, it’s all there. And so I wrote toward that title — that was the title I always wanted the book to bear.’”