Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

At 3:00 am the line between fact and fiction blurs. Before falling asleep, I had been reading Peace Like A River, a novel by Leif Enger set in the Badlands of North Dakota. The scene was about waking in a trailer that has run out of propane, where breath comes out as smoke and blankets freeze. Outside the wind blows and snow paints the landscape white. I awoke cold. No power. No heat. The sky glowed a murky pink of distant lights.

The trees were white down to the bark, not one branch was spared. Snow was spray-painted onto model trees for a train set or a holiday shop display. Only this winter, my winter, was real and vicious. The wind whipped, pulling one tree’s hair until her whole head snapped off.

An hundred year old white pine’s crown fell, barely missing our tree house. Our little forest had survived the last ice storm only to be wrecked by wet snow and wind. Two trees down; others hold onto lame branches by bark skin only. Maimed and battered, the survivors stand.

Peace Like a River is set in a winter landscape where snow falls by the foot and drifts to eaves. It swallows a man whole. The scale is even greater to a child. The narrator is eleven-year-old Reuben Land, but this is not a children’s book.

Peace Like a River is an adult exploration of family myths, good versus evil and the limits of faith. It is also a Western with an outlaw older brother on a sturdy horse. Our heroine, Swede, is a precocious nine-year-old girl who writes cowboy stories in rhyming verse (ugh!)

The children believe in their older brother and in miracles that will lead them to him. The miracle worker is their father, an ordinary man, a janitor who has lost both his wife and his job. He not only speaks but argues with God. This is a myth told by a child narrator, who worships his father. Reuben is not necessarily a reliable narrator:

You know this is true, and if you don’t it is I the witness who am to blame.

Although it is shelved in adult literary fiction, Peace Like a River reads like Laura Ingalls Wilder’s The Long Winter crossed with C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. These are poor folks in a bleak winter landscape, but there is also magic rich in Biblical allegory.

Violence and crime makes this a story appropriate only for mature teens. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to my 14-year-old son, but it would give his younger sister nightmares. There were a few grizzly passages I had to skim and wished I’d skipped.

There were other passages that I went back to read again and again. Enger’s prose is simple but evocative:

I remember it as October days are always remembered, cloudless, maple-flavored, the air gold and so clean it quivers.


With the same sparse prose Enger renders complex feelings:

I had a feeling the adults didn’t know we were in the room – a feeling we were getting away with something, and a sadness that it was nothing to be prized.

Enger’s verse can just be plain fun:

Hope is like yeast, you know, rising under warmth.

Here’s another gem:

Anyone can hear her voice was worn to the contours of apology.

There are perfect sentences and perfect passages:

I dropped off for real and dreamed a river of horses flowing along between banks, manes rippling, backs streaming sun. I woke inside a strange calm recognizable as defeat. Light entered the house pink and orange. I straggled outside, leaned against the house and squinted at the backlit hills. The light was expiring; already it was like looking into tea-colored water. I didn’t, in fact, see Davy. But somewhere on the side of the darkening hill a horse lifted its voice to neigh. The sound had the clear distance of history.

Now can you see how someone who has little interest in Westerns and is skeptical of miracles could fall in love with this novel? The true miracle was in the written word.

Enger is a master storyteller. His writing is beautiful and lyrical, and his characters recognizably human if larger than life. I loved that the narrator was a boy plagued by asthma and torn by his loyalties and desires. Reuben and his precocious sister felt more like adult memories of childhood than like actual children. They are storybook characters in a campfire tale.

I cozied up by the woodstove, reading by daylight, and suspended disbelief. I was disappointed to reach the end under the glare of electric lights.

Thank you, Tessa and Bee, for this wonderful book recommendation!

49 comments:

tina said...

What a mess you all have up there with all that soggy wet snow. Sorry about your trees but it is great it missed your house. And I am also happy you have your power back and were able to stay warm.

The books sounds like a really good one. I actually like westerns, but his writing is very descriptive too so I'll have to check it out. I've been having more time to read:) but now gardening season is upon us. Hang in there...

troutbirder said...

Interesting sounding book and the pictures fit you wonderful review just right. I'm not really jealous... just wish I could write so well.
I had a car breakdown in the summer heat of the badlands once. I can't even imagine how awful it would be in a winter storm. They don't call it the "badlands" for no reason

Just a Plane Ride Away said...

This sounds like the perfect way to spend an electricity-free day. Another one for the to-read list. Beautiful photos, as always.

Cynthia said...

Hi Sarah, what an effective technique to describe your sleep and have us wake up confused about what part is dream and what part came from the novel...we were in that confusing just awake state with you, uncertain where fact ended or began...

Thank you for sharing the evocative October quote, "I remember it as October days are always remembered, cloudless, maple-flavored, the air gold and so clean it quivers." It reminded me of the exciting experience of the seasons change. How cozy to read by the woodstove when all around is cold.

I'm still thinking about the tree's lost crown...(tip?) and the feeling of fairy tale magic.
I also skim over the too difficult to read parts...harsh reality...I 'don't like to keep those images in my memory. Lovely post, Sarah. Beautiful photographs...so clean and fresh feeling. <3

Alyson (New England Living) said...

This was such a creative post! Well done!

Loved the pop of green in a couple of the photos.

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Alyson. I’m looking for color in my white landscape. At least the sky is bright blue today.

Dave King said...

Whatever else, the images are lovely. Great post.

Sarah Laurence said...

Dave, how funny - I was posting a comment about your poem as you were posting here. Fun to trade our arts.

Bee said...

I'm so glad that you liked the book, Sarah. I would agree that there are elements in it that aren't my usual thing (ie, what I look for in a good novel), and yet I thought that it was a very satisfying, full, thoughtful read. Very lyrical. Enger has a new book out; have you heard anything about it?

You have such a gift for matching your peerless pictures to the images you are describing. The picture of the horses in the wintry landscape, and the green glass set against the white-out, and the rosy pink light are all so beautiful. Winter does have a sharp beauty, though; you must be getting tired of its harsher side.

Sarah Laurence said...

Bee, I saw the book on his website and would like to read it later. I haven’t heard much about it. His brother has a YA crossover novel out too. The horses are an old shot from Port Meadow in England – too much snow here to leave a horse out in Maine. I like winter, but mud season, when all this will melt, is tough. It’s nice to have you back!

D said...

Another great book of the west, told by a 14 year old: Ivan Doig's English Creek. This is the first of the Macaskill family trio of novels.

Set in Montana in the 1950s. Doig captures the understated irony of the people.

Ms. Wis./Each Little World said...

Those excerpts are beautiful; but not a book I would probably pick up without a recommendation. I still remember my father sprawled on the couch, with me and my three sisters on the floor, while he read aloud to us from "The Long Winter." Maybe that is the reason why it — of all Wilder's books — resonates the most. As for your storm photos, sometimes I think the way we cope with the loss of our trees is through that moment of snowy beauty before they fall.

Sarah Laurence said...

D, welcome to my blog and thank you for the book recommendations. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is another similar book. It’s helpful to have these books collected in the comments as that was how I found Peace Like a River.

Ms. Wis, from the jacket description, I probably would have passed on the book. It was great to have the recommendation from other bloggers. It also won an American Library Association award for adult books that would appeal to young adults too. The Long Winter was my favorite or maybe Little House in the Big Woods. Now I’m living in a big house in a little wood, at least by Wilder’s standards. My mother read a couple of them to my brother and me, and then I read the rest myself. I read the series to my kids. It’s fun to share favorite books. Trees fall in a forest – it’s part of what makes it wild. It still feels a bit sad. You are right that the beauty of the snow or frost helps.

A Cuban In London said...

And thank YOU for that line 'I remember it as October days are always remembered, cloudless, maple-flavored, the air gold and so clean it quivers.
'. Beautiful and majestic.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, I thought you’d appreciate the language in this novel. Enger’s writing is sublime.

Mary Ellen said...

I should really stay away from your blog - every time I come here, it seems I leave with another book to add to my too-long list of must-reads.

It does seem like life here is worthy of evocative fiction. The struggle to survive is daunting for both animal and plant species. When we finally reach spring, I always feel as though I have summited at Everest - or at least at base camp. I do appreciate the challenge, though, and wouldn't trade it for any other life.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mary Ellen, I have a big book stack too. This one will appeal especially to families weathering winter. Last year I did trade my life. We were on sabbatical in England, the land of eternal spring. We enjoyed the time there, but we were equally happy to return home. I missed winter, but now I miss England’s green lushness too.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tina, troutbirder, JAPRA, and Cynthia, sorry! I just realized that I never replied to your comments. I’m more than a bit groggy with a nasty head cold.

Tina, a Mainer like you would read between the lines. There were a lot of trees on houses and people without power for several days. We were lucky.

Troutbirder, the book starts out and ends in Minnesota over a harsh winter. If you’re looking for an escape, it won’t be that for you, but I still think you would enjoy it. The opening scene is goose hunting. I’d love to see the Badlands but not in a broken down car. Yikes!

JAPRA, I enjoy the excuse of a power failure to spend the day reading by the fire. Also the kids had to go out and play in the snow and had a great time. One day is fun.

Cynthia, I’m glad you followed me. It’s hard to show confusion without being confusing. That line about October resonated with me too. The snow storm did cast my woods into storybook land. A fairy must have been watching over the tree house. Thanks!

Les said...

Now there is something else I feel I should read. Your weather would kill me, maybe for one day of photos, but it would have to melt and be gone. The horse trio is fantastic.

Elenka said...

Fellow Mainer, here. This storm was a whopper. 26 1/2 hours without power. Rain on Friday, tho.

david mcmahon said...

Great post, Sarah. And my favourite images are #2 and #5.

Always a pleasure to visit here.

Sarah Laurence said...

Les, so that’s two recommendations the Ivan Doig trio, thanks! The gorgeous light does make up for winter’s chill.

Elenka, welcome to my blog! We only lost power for maybe 12 hours – poor you! I’ll come visit later.

David, thanks. I’m always looking for spots of color in my white landscape. Thanks too for flagging Tessa’s post on African orphans and her efforts to help those who are helping them.

Tessa said...

You weave your magic again, Sarah, with your words and images. Such an eloquent and illuminating review of Enger's book. I do admire your ability to evoke the essence of an author's work with such lucidity and erudition.

Another book you may like, and one which will take you away from winter's chill, is Rachel Cusk's 'The Last Supper'. A story of her family sojourn to Italy one summer; it is a glimpse into an Italy far removed from the pleasant Tuscan landscapes of holidays abroad.

Sarah Laurence said...

Tessa, thanks for your comment and the book recommendation. Several people have recommended Cusk’s novels to me. I checked and her memoir is just out in the UK but not available in the USA until end of May. I tend to review novels more than memoirs.

walk2write said...

The name of the novel itself begs for attention. A river peaceful? Maybe where it oxbows, but watch out for the current elsewhere! I've always lived closer to big rivers than the sea, and it has always been the relentless flow (no ebbing) that's captivated me. Thanks for taking us on an imaginative ride on this river, Sarah!

Sarah Laurence said...

W2W, I love the title too, and it does make use of the double meaning you intuit. I think you’d appreciate the spirituality of this book and its sense of place and of family.

Mama Shujaa said...

Sarah,

I really enjoyed this review and the photographs are just breathtaking.

"Reuben and his precocious sister felt more like adult memories of childhood than like actual children."

Lovely review Sarah.

Mama. S.

Mojo said...

Sounds like a real winner of a book. The writer can certainly turn a phrase... "worn to the contours of apology." I love that.

And your photos are positively amazing. I can see how you took POTD at David's. Those alone would do it!

Marvelous!

Moannie said...

Thanks to David at authorblog for finding you for us and for your POTD. what an enchanting post and I shall certainly add the book to my already long list of must reads.

Rose said...

I've heard the news reports about the storms that hit Maine and all the power outages. I'm glad to hear you have your power back, Sarah.

Once again, such beautiful and appropriate photos to illustrate your review! This sounds like an interesting book; in fact, it sounds familiar as if someone else has recommended it to me, too. I'm not a fan of Westerns, either, but as you say, good writing can draw you into a story you might not otherwise read.

Donna said...

I enjoyed reading this book review. I've heard of this book before. What a great title it has! It sounds like a good one and I'll have to put it on my "Books to Read" list.
I thought of you when I heard about the storm happening up there last week. I hope your power wasn't out for too long!

Sarah Laurence said...

Mama Shujaa, thank you! Peace Like a River is a wonderful read.

Mojo, welcome to my blog and thank you! I only picked a few gems to share, but there were many others. I enjoyed the photos on your blog too.

Moannie, welcome to my blog! I enjoyed reading your POTD too.

Rose, compared to others we didn’t suffer – only 12 hours or so of no power. Good writing is a winner.

Donna, it does have a great title and it fits the book. I’ll be curious to hear what you think of it. Half a day without power wasn’t so bad. Others went days.

Denise said...

Hi Sarah, I discovered you through David's POTD. So glad too as this has been a wonderful read and your photos are first class, as is your writing. The book you mentioned interests me as my father-in-law grew up on a homestead in ND. I am interesting in buying him this book as a gift and would like to read it myself. Thank you so much.

Sarah Laurence said...

Denise, welcome to my blog! My mother is reading Peace Like a River now and enjoying it very much. I hope your father-in-law enjoys it too. I’d love to hear your reaction.

Pouty Lips said...

Congrats on your POTD mention by David at Authorblog. I enjoy your writing style and I felt like you were telling me the story personally.

Sarah Laurence said...

PL, thank you and welcome to my blog! I enjoyed your POTD too.

lakeviewer said...

I read the book a few years ago. Your review brought it all back, the imagery, the rhythm, the landscape. Thanks.

Sarah Laurence said...

Lakeview, welcome to my blog! It sounds like we share a taste in books. I’ll come visit.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

"a river of horses". Perfect.

Ice storms are my least favourite sort of weather. I well remember lying in bed as a child listening fearfully as the trees cracked.

I hope the weather is better for you now!

Anil P said...

Sitting here in sweltering heat I can only imagine the cold you must be experiencing.

When the landscape blots out like that it's as if nature is seeking to hide her forms so you could enjoy them anew once the snow melts away.

sizzie said...

I haven't stopped by for a while, but I knew I could find some beautiful photographs here. You didn't dissappoint. The green vases are particurally to my liking! But, really, who can pick a favorite of these? Then I see you have written about a book I enjoyed. Terrific. Thank you.

Sarah Laurence said...

Pamela, we’ve had two tree snapping storms, but the one today was tree friendly, bringing a foot of fresh powder perfect for skiing. The kids spent the whole day outside building a snow fort. Winter can be enjoyable when the weather cooperates. Even the hardships bring some drama.

Anil, I can’t imagine sweltering heat. It is fun how blogs can connect us through opposite weather and geography. For one who doesn’t know snow, you understand its poetry very well.

Sizzie, welcome back! How nice to hear that we share a good book. It's interesting how many people have commented on the green vases. It’s a sight I see every day, but the blog made me stop, focus and share it. That’s the true beauty of it. Thank you!

♥ bfs~"Mimi" ♥ said...

I'm hoping this might be in our library by now! It sounds mystical and very captivating. Thank you for sharing so much about it ~ and your photography is simply wonderful!

Cosmo said...

Sarah, what a beautiful book review. It's a true tribute to an author to review their work in prose as wonderful as they wrote. And the photographs are gorgeous. I've added the book to my even growing list of must-reads.

Sarah Laurence said...

Mimi, I often review new releases, but this one was 2001. I hope you enjoy it. Thanks!

Cosmo, that is so nice to hear. Thank you!

Alan said...

Wonderful photos!!

Sarah Laurence said...

Thanks, Alan, and welcome to my blog!

Anonymous said...

Would love to use some of your comments and photos to enhance our book club discussion of Peace Like a River. May I have permission to print a few pages for today's group. Our book club, Chapter One, is ten years old and a part of All Saints Church in Palatine, IL.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anonymous, you have my permission and thanks for asking.

Book Club Readers, please come back and post some comments that come out of your discussion.