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!
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