One of my favorite songs is Bob Dylan's "Brownsville Girl." In that song, he describes watching a cowboy movie in which Gregory Peck is gunned down while riding across the desert. The townspeople want to string up the kid who shot him, but the dying gunfighter says the kid shot him in a duel fair and square. He says, "I want him to feel every moment what it's like to face his death." What a great line! Bob Dylan says that the scene keeps blowing "right through me like a ball and chain." I get that. I feel the same way about Leif Enger's Peace Like a River, which is a modern Western.
Peace Like a River is really about which of two kinds of heroes Reuben Land is going to become. His older brother Davy is the independent Lone Ranger type who takes matters into his own hands. Early in the book, Davy asks Reuben, "You think God looks out for us?" and when Reuben answers, "Well, yeah," Davy asks, "You want Him too?" For Davy, having someone take care of things for him goes against the grain. When Davy hears the story of how their father was flung four miles away by a tornado and God delivered him unbruised, it really bugs him. The truth is Davy is amazing. Reuben's description of Davy hunting is right out of a Chuck Norris poster:
"His right index finger is just whitening on the trigger, and on his face is nothing at all but the knowledge that the goose is his.
Not confidence--I understand confidence. What Davy had was knowledge."
Reuben and his little sister Swede idolize their older brother. Swede, a romantic eight year old, writes narrative poetry about Sunny Sundown, a lone hero from the Old West. At one point Sunny rides into town and threatens a whole mob of people who are about to hang an innocent man:
"His clothes and hat were black as ink, his dancing mustang pale,
His eyes were blue and hard enough to make the sun turn tail.
He said, 'You want to hang this man, I'll give you each the same.
I don't much like a mob,' said he, 'and Sundown is my name.'"
It's incredibly inspiring, but as the novel progresses and Davy becomes a vigilante, Swede runs into difficulty trying to make things turn out all right for Sunny.
Reuben's other hero is his father, Jeremiah, the quiet and steady janitor at his school. If Davy is like Chuck Norris, then Jeremiah is like Gregory Peck. He is concerned, but unruffled by threats against the life and well-being of his family. He prays, trusts in God, and teaches his children that retalliation only leads to escalation, but when it comes time to act, he wields his broom with a vengence. His faith doesn't come easy to him though. On occasions he has shouting matches with God, and one night seems to wrestle with him like Jacob. God works extraordinary miracles through Jeremiah, often ones he doesn't even notice himself, and some of them remarkably self-sacrificing. When a vindictive principal fires him, Jeremiah touches his face, healing him of a bad skin condition.
Reuben's own physical condition factors in the way he relates to his brother, his father, and ultimately God. He has terrible asthma and says that he couldn't be self-sufficient like Davy even if he wanted to. "The weak must bank on mercy--without which, after all, I wouldn't have lasted fifteen minutes." At the same time, he struggles with reliance on a God who miraculously saved him at birth, but left him with lungs like clogged dryer vents. When his father miraculously walks off of the back of a pick-up truck one night, Reuben wonders why God hasn't healed him. "For the first time the thought ingressed that if this man, my father, beloved by God, could work miracles--if he could walk on air--then fixing my defective lungs ought to be a picnic. Yes, indeed, a day at the old beach."
Reuben eventually meets Jape Waltzer, one of the creepiest villains in all literature. Jape is the epitome of self dependence. He scolds Reuben for thanking God for the food. "You are thanking God for the food when he did not give it to you. I gave it to you and did so freely. Thank me." He sneers at Reuben's timidity and tries to teach him how to breathe: "No, no. Make the attempt. Make up your mind and breathe." I wanted to reach into the book and smack the guy, but I know if I met him face to face, he would freak me out as much as he does Reuben.
Peace Like a River is an American classic that probes a value that Emerson made our most defining characteristic, self dependence. Enger writes with a beatifully poetic and yet boldly masculine style that often jumps off the page. I use this book for summer reading, and on the whole kids love the book and discuss it enthusiastically.
- Jon Carter
- I am a high school English teacher who loves to read, and I'm passionate about finding quality books for my students to read. The reviews on this blog will reflect what I am currently reading and sometimes what my students are reading. The books that appear on the list are ones that I think would be of interest to high school students, are age appropriate in content and difficulty, and in some way tap into eternal truths. Most are classics, but some are just fun, popular books.