Peace Like A River Summary

Leif Enger

Peace Like A River

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Peace Like A River Summary

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One part Christian-inflected odyssey, one part tragedy, and one part classic adventure in the American West, Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is the story of a 1960s Minnesota family narrated by the asthmatic Reuben, the product of the first of his father’s seven miracles. The title takes its name from the Christian hymn “It Is Well With My Soul”. Selling their house and leaving their quiet Midwestern life behind, the family sets off in their AirStream trailer in pursuit of Reuben’s older brother, Davy, who must go on into hiding after killing the family’s nemeses, two bullies that had been haunting Davy, his girlfriend, their sister, Swede, and Reuben for years. The novel centers on themes of justice, loyalty, faith, family ties, the myth and allure of the West, and the sustaining power of belief.

The children’s father, Jeremiah Land, is deeply religious, and affords Reuben, himself a believer (and ironically the sole witness to many of these miracles), assurance that the possibility of magic exists in the world. The first of many miracles Jeremiah performed, for example, was commanding the infant Reuben’s lungs to fill with air after he was born breathless and blue, leaving him with crippling asthma and an ever-present awareness of the gift of life.

Jeremiah is also the school’s janitor, and he witnesses firsthand the abuses his children suffer at the hands of the school bullies, Tommy Basca and Israel Finch, and intervenes when he notices them setting their sights on Davy’s girlfriend in the locker room. This intervention sets in motion the entire series of events, as it causes the bullies to target the Land family relentlessly, culminating in kidnapping their baby sister, Swede, while Jeremiah and Reuben are at church. The following day is Swede’s ninth birthday, which they soldier on in celebrating with Western-themed gifts (Swede’s favorite) in spite of her understandably dark mood. For dinner, Jeremiah makes his “specialty soup”, which a greedy traveling salesman and friend of Jeremiah’s named Lurvy slurps up hungrily, leaving almost none for anyone else. The second of Jeremiah’s miracles, however, occurs that night, as they never do actually run out of soup.

One night, Basca and Finch attempt to break into the Land’s house while everyone is asleep, but not without waking up Reuben and Davy. In order to protect his family, Davy kills the assailants, which ends up landing him in jail. Davy’s trial goes dismally, and in the midst of plans to break him out, Reuben and Jeremiah learn that Davy has already escaped. With Davy on the lam, his family piles into the AirStream trailer and head west across the Badlands with a Federal Agent named Andreesen on their tail. Each member of the family contributes something to their survival and make sacrifices for the greater good, such as when clever Swede sabotages the fed’s car in order to buy them time to escape. Although the family drives all night, the Lands never have to stop for gas and are never spotted, despite their distinctive trailer, marking another of Jeremiah’s miracles.

Eventually winding up at a gas station in the Badlands, the family makes the acquaintance of Roxanna Cawley, a character who leaves a deep impression on the family’s lives. She kindly takes in the Lands and shelters them from the storm, allowing Jeremiah time to recover from the pneumonia he’s developed on the road. Their relationship with Roxanna is decisive, because it is also there that Reuben spots a horse rider in the mountains that he recognizes instantly as Davy. Despite his debilitating asthma, Reuben hikes up the mountain to where he saw the rider and discovers that it is in fact his brother Davy. Though Davy is reluctant to reveal his hideout, he eventually agrees to show Reuben where he’s been staying, and later that night the two brothers go to a cabin in the woods inhabited by one Jape Waltzer and a young girl named Sara, already promised to Waltzer even though she isn’t yet of legal marrying age. Davy swears Reuben to secrecy about his whole set-up, and the boy reluctantly agrees.

Andreesen, the federal agent, goes missing during a particularly bad snowstorm, though the family and Davy have a sneaking suspicion that it’s Jape Waltzer getting him out of the way. A search party turns up no evidence of his whereabouts, and free of the constant threat of discovery, the Lands move back home–this time with Roxanna–and purchase a farm, where Jeremiah and Roxanna are finally married. The family settles back into quiet normalcy for some time, until Davy and the young Sara appear out of the blue, driving a car they stole from Waltzer. The reunion is bittersweet, as everyone knows that Davy needs to go back into hiding as soon as possible. Nonetheless, they relish their brief meeting, until it is unceremoniously interrupted by the appearance of an enraged Waltzer, so bent on revenge for the theft of his bride-to-be and his vehicle that he shoots not Davy, but Jeremiah and Reuben.

Reuben enjoys a near-death experience, which transports him to a pastoral scene in which he and his father are reunited in a meadow, but he awakens to find that he has once again survived against unimaginable odds. His father was not so lucky. As the commotion clears, Reuben also realizes that Davy is gone, and Waltzer has escaped, never to be seen again. The novel closes with a leap forward in time and resolves on an upbeat note: Roxanna continued to raise Reuben and Swede, even after the death of Jeremiah, and Reuben eventually marries Sara, who stayed behind on the farm, while Swede eventually becomes a famous novelist.