We live in an era when people seem bizarrely proud to declare, “Oh, I never read fiction!” like that says something positive about them. We also live in an era where genre fiction tends to make that tendency among some to be somewhat more forgivable. Formula novels for romance, mystery, sci-fi, or whatever have rendered those genres so lame and predictable I can understand why many readers give up on fiction. But the popular alternatives, celebrity and political bios and the deplorable miz-lit chief among them, are equally lame and predictable. But then there is the literary novel. Peace Like A River is a luminous example of those.
The first thing you notice beginning this novel is the language. Enger writes with a style that is both hard-scrabble, mid-Western plainness and lilting poetics at the same time. There were passages that were a little challenging until I caught on to the flow of his language and then the lilt and flow added seamlessly to the experience of living in Minnesota, traveling through North Dakota and into the Badlands searching for one's beloved son.
The story, told from the point of view of Reuben Land, the 11 year old son of Jeremiah Land, a widower rising his three children alone, is simple. In the 1960s Jeremiah is a school janitor doing his best to raise his kids. His feisty but romantic, poetry-writing 9 year old daughter Swede has a frightening encounter with two teenage school bullies. Later that night the two break into the Land's house and are both shot dead by the older Land son, 16 year old Davy. What follows is a trial in which the young shooter is convicted of second degree manslaughter and sentenced to prison. But Davy manages to escape the jail before being carted off to prison and takes off into the Badlands. Jeremiah packs his two younger children into an Airstream trailer and goes off in search of his son.
Throughout the journey there is the constant presence of the awe and wonder of a time that cannot help but seem more innocent and yet more frightening. There are mysteries, signs, wonders and the haunting presence of the unexplained, the miraculous. These are things I love and appreciate in story-telling because, in my opinion, these are things that make stories integral to human experience and eternal. Jeremiah Land is the real hero of the story because he is a good man who loves all his children and wants to do right by them but he is an honest man torn between protecting Davy and doing the right thing.
Our modern era is so full of technology and scientific advancements and media and constant information overload that it is something of a relief to slip back to a time, not all that long ago, when communication was often problematic and life was more mysterious. People could just disappear. Using one's instincts and heightened perception and bonds of love were integral to an adventure such as the one Jeremiah Land takes his children on. This is a book that haunts even days after you finish the last page there are scenes that linger and feelings that stir. This is a novel that has more truth than any non-fiction is capable of. I've always said that a good novel tells the truth while being unencumbered by the facts. Peace Like A River is an excellent example of that.
Thanks for reading.