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Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River

4.1 233
by Leif Enger

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Young Reuben Land has little doubt that miracles happen all around us, suspecting that his own father is touched by God. When his older brother flees a controversial murder charge, Reuben, along with his older sister and father, set off on a journey that will take them to the Badlands and through a landscape more extraordinary than they could have anticipated.


Young Reuben Land has little doubt that miracles happen all around us, suspecting that his own father is touched by God. When his older brother flees a controversial murder charge, Reuben, along with his older sister and father, set off on a journey that will take them to the Badlands and through a landscape more extraordinary than they could have anticipated. Enger’s novel is at once a heroic quest and a haunting meditation on the possibility of magic in the everyday world.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Once in a great while, we encounter a novel in our voluminous reading that begs to be read aloud. Leif Enger's debut, Peace Like a River, is one such work. His richly evocative novel, narrated by an asthmatic 11-year-old named Reuben Land, is the story of Reuben's unusual family and their journey across the frozen Badlands of the Dakotas in search of his fugitive older brother. Charged with the murder of two locals who terrorized their family, Davy has fled, understanding that the scales of justice will not weigh in his favor. But Reuben, his father, Jeremiah -- a man of faith so deep he has been known to produce miracles -- and Reuben's little sister, Swede, follow closely behind the fleeing Davy.

Affecting and dynamic, Peace Like a River is at once a tragedy, a romance, and an unflagging exploration into the spirituality and magic possible in the everyday world, and in that of the world awaiting us on the other side of life. In Enger's superb debut effort, we witness a wondrous celebration of family, faith, and spirit, the likes of which we haven't seen in a long, long time -- and the birth of a classic work of literature. (Fall 2001 Selection)

Set in the early 1960s, Enger's debut novel is narrated by eleven-year-old Reuben Land, an asthmatic boy whose close-knit family is broken apart after the oldest son, Davy, commits a crime of passion and becomes a fugitive. Reuben, his father and younger sister become immersed in a series of mystical events as they follow Davy's trail across the northern United States. Enger's book is filled with biblical illusions and miracles crowd its pages like proverbial angels on the head of a pin; one curious scene features a pot of soup that replenishes itself in loaves-and-fishes fashion. The highlight of the book is its engaging narrator, Reuben Land: He's funny, endearing and committed to his family, no matter how wrong their actions.
—David Abrams

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The cover, though beautiful, seems better suited for a reissue of Robin Hood or Camelot. And the reader's claim to fame is his role as an HIV-positive artist on the TV series Life Goes On. So what makes this an great audiobook? Two things: careful, thoughtful writing by Enger and passionate, spirited reading by Lowe. This is a graceful, stirring first novel, with echoes of To Kill a Mockingbird and classic Americana at its heart. Eleven-year-old Reuben Land lives a typically calm existence in a small Midwestern town; beyond having an extraordinary father (who performs quiet miracles), he's a pretty average boy. When two neighborhood bullies threaten his older brother, Davy, and his younger sister, Swede, life takes on a dark edge. The conflict escalates after Davy shoots the two boys dead, is in jail awaiting trial and escapes. Reuben, Swede and their widowed father take off in search of Davy, moving across the striking landscape of Minnesota and South Dakota. Their search ultimately leads them to make a very important decision, one that challenges their own morals and familial bonds. Enger's characters are exceptionally strong, and Lowe deftly portrays them: Swede's chutzpah, Reuben's reverence for his family, and their father's magic are all admirably expressed. Simultaneous release with the Atlantic Monthly hardcover (Forecasts, July 16). (Sept.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Publishers Weekly
Dead for 10 minutes before his father orders him to breathe in the name of the living God, Reuben Land is living proof that the world is full of miracles. But it's the impassioned honesty of his quiet, measured narrative voice that gives weight and truth to the fantastic elements of this engrossing tale. From the vantage point of adulthood, Reuben tells how his father rescued his brother Davy's girlfriend from two attackers, how that led to Davy being jailed for murder and how, once Davy escapes and heads south for the Badlands of North Dakota, 12-year-old Reuben, his younger sister Swede and their janitor father light out after him. But the FBI is following Davy as well, and Reuben has a part to play in the finale of that chase, just as he had a part to play in his brother's trial. It's the kind of story that used to be material for ballads, and Enger twines in numerous references to the Old West, chiefly through the rhymed poetry Swede writes about a hero called Sunny Sundown. That the story is set in the early '60s in Minnesota gives it an archetypal feel, evoking a time when the possibility of getting lost in the country still existed. Enger has created a world of signs, where dead crows fall in a snowstorm and vagrants lie curled up in fields, in which everything is significant, everything has weight and comprehension is always fleeting. This is a stunning debut novel, one that sneaks up on you like a whisper and warms you like a quilt in a North Dakota winter, a novel about faith, miracles and family that is, ultimately, miraculous. Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Fair or not, Enger's first novel will inevitably be compared to the work of Garrison Keillor: both men are veterans of Minnesota Public Radio, and the book very much shares the spirit of Keillor's radio work and fiction, with its quiet, observant gaze capturing the beauty of simple things, related through wise and thoughtful characters -- in this case, the Land family from North Dakota. Asthmatic youngster Reuben Land tells the admittedly shaggy-dog story of his older brother Davy, who shoots and kills two violent intruders as they break into the family's home; Davy is convicted but manages to flee. Both the Lands and the law follow in hot pursuit, but the family seems to have support from a higher power. Father Jeremiah himself has performed a miracle or two in his lifetime (walking on water, healing the afflicted with his touch, and the like). Biblical allusions abound, and fantastic things happen, such as the patriarch's four-mile tour via tornado. "Make of it what you will," says Reuben. A low-key charmer for literary collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 5/15/01.] Marc Kloszewski, Indiana Free Lib., PA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Jim Harrison
Once you begin Leif Enger's Peace Like A River, you are carried away by the elemental surge of its story, the sheer eagerness to see what happens to the engrossing characters who exist far from the intrusions of the media in the timeless arena of family love and anguish over a lost member. It is Enger's gift that he has made their extraordinary world credible.
Rick Bass
Not since Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain or Cormac McCarthy's Cities of the Plain have I been so engrossed in the reading of a book, and in a story told so beautifully. While reading it in the airport, I nearly missed my plane, so completely did I forget my surroundings; and upon arriving at my destination, I nearly forgot to get off. Peace Like a River is that loveliest of gifts, a truly great book, into which the reader can sink deliciously and completely. The characters fill the reader's days and nights; and in the reading of it, we cross over into amazing territory.
Frank McCourt
I'm urging this book on you because it is written in prose tart and crisp as a Minnesota Autumn. Peace Like a River is seductive and chatty and deliciously American and there are passages so wondrous and wise you'll want to claw yourself with pleasure.
"What readers will appreciate first in Enger's marvelous novel is the language. His limpid sentences are composed with the clarity and richness for which poets strive. . . . Enger's profound understanding of human nature stands behind his compelling prose." (Starred review.)
Kirkus Reviews
Minnesotan Enger pulls out the stops in this readable albeit religiously correct debut about a family with a father who may be touched by God and a son by the Devil. Jeremiah Land's wife left him years ago, and now, in a midwestern town called Roofing, in 1962 or so, he's janitor at the local school and sole parent of chronically asthmatic Reuben, 11 and the tale's teller; his precocious sister Swede, only 9 and already an accomplished poet of western outlaw-romances; and Davy, who at 17 becomes a killer-though possibly a just one. Two town boys from the wrong side of the tracks have a grudge against custodian Jeremiah (he caught them in the girls' locker room) and, after vowing revenge (and briefly kidnapping Swede), they appear one night in the upstairs of the Land house, whereupon Davy (did he lure them there?) bravely and determinedly shoots them dead. There's a trial, a conviction -- and then a jailbreak as Davy escapes, not to be seen for some months. Miraculous? Well, Reuben has seen his father walk on air ("Make of it what you will," he advises the reader), and now there's a miraculous meal (a pot of soup is bottomless), the miracle of the family's being left an Airstream trailer-even the miracle of Jeremiah being fired, leaving the family free to take to the road after Davy. The direction they go (toward the Badlands), how they avoid the police, what people they meet (including a future wife for Jeremiah), how they find handsome Davy -- all depend on what may or may not constitute miracle, subtle or wondrous, including the suspenseful events leading to a last gunfight and the biggest miracle of all (preceded by a glimpse of heaven), all followed by certain rearrangements among the lives of mortals. Handsomely written, rich with the feel and flavor of the plains -- and suited mainly for those whose yearnings are in the down-home, just-folks style of the godly.

Product Details

Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)
Age Range:
12 Years

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1


From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with-given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century. Think about your own first gasp: a shocking wind roweling so easily down your throat, and you still slipping around in the doctor's hands. How you yowled! Not a thing on your mind but breakfast, and that was on the way.

When I was born to Helen and Jeremiah Land, in 1951, my lungs refused to kick in.

My father wasn't in the delivery room or even in the building; the halls of Wilson Hospital were close and short, and Dad had gone out to pace in the damp September wind. He was praying, rounding the block for the fifth time, when the air quickened. He opened his eyes and discovered he was running -- sprinting across the grass toward the door.

"How'd you know?" I adored this story, made him tell it all the time.

"God told me you were in trouble."

"Out loud? Did you hear Him?"

"Nope, not out loud. But He made me run, Reuben. I guess I figured it out on the way."

I had, in fact, been delivered some minutes before. My mother was dazed, propped against soggy pillows, unable to comprehend what Dr. Animas Nokes was telling her.

"He still isn't breathing, Mrs. Land."

"Give him to me!"

To this day I'm glad Dr. Nokes did not hand me over on demand. Tired as my mother was, who knows when she would've noticed? Instead he laid me down and rubbed me hard with a towel. He pounded my back; he rolled me over and massaged my chest. He breathed air into my mouth and nose -- my chest rose, fell with a raspy whine, stayed fallen. Years later Dr. Nokes would tell my brother Davy that my delivery still disturbed his sleep. He'd never seen a child with such swampy lungs.

When Dad skidded into the room, Dr. Nokes was sitting on the side of the bed holding my mother's hand. She was wailing -- I picture her as an old woman here, which is funny, since I was never to see her as one -- and old Nokes was attempting to ease her grief. It was unavoidable, he was saying; nothing could be done; perhaps it was for the best.

I was lying uncovered on a metal table across the room.

Dad lifted me gently. I was very clean from all that rubbing, and I was gray and beginning to cool. A little clay boy is what I was.

"Breathe," Dad said.

I lay in his arms.

Dr. Nokes said, "Jeremiah, it has been twelve minutes."

"Breathe!" The picture I see is of Dad, brown hair short and wild, giving this order as if he expected nothing but obedience.

Dr. Nokes approached him. "Jeremiah. There would be brain damage now. His lungs can't fill."

Dad leaned down, laid me back on the table, took off his jacket and wrapped me in it -- a black canvas jacket with a quilted lining, I have it still. He left my face uncovered.

"Sometimes," said Dr. Nokes, "there is something unworkable in one of the organs. A ventricle that won't pump correctly. A liver that poisons the blood." Dr. Nokes was a kindly and reasonable man. "Lungs that can't expand to take in air. In these cases," said Dr. Nokes, "we must trust in the Almighty to do what is best." At which Dad stepped across and smote Dr. Nokes with a right hand, so that the doctor went down and lay on his side with his pupils unfocused. As Mother cried out, Dad turned back to me, a clay child wrapped in a canvas coat, and said in a normal voice, "Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe."

The truth is, I didn't think much on this until a dozen years later -- beyond, of course, savoring the fact that I'd begun life in a dangerous and thus romantic manner. When you are seven years old there's nothing as lovely and tragic as telling your friends you were just about dead once. It made Dad my hero, as you might expect, won him my forgiveness for anything that he might do forever; but until later events it didn't occur to me to wonder just why I was allowed, after all, to breathe and keep breathing.

The answer, it seems to me now, lies in the miracles.

Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it's been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week-a miracle, people say, as if they've been educated from greeting cards. I'm sorry, but nope. Such things are worth our notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strength of the word.

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave -- now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of earth.

My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed -- though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here's what I saw. Here's how it went. Make of it what you will.

The fact is, the miracles that sometimes flowed from my father's fingertips had few witnesses but me. Yes, enough people saw enough strange things that Dad became the subject of a kind of misspoken folklore in our town, but most ignored the miracles as they ignored Dad himself.

I believe I was preserved, through those twelve airless minutes, in order to be a witness, and as a witness, let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword.

If he were here to begin the account, I believe Dad would say what he said to Swede and me on the worst night of all our lives:

We and the world, my children, will always be at war.

Retreat is impossible.

Arm yourselves.

© 2001 Leif Enger. All rights reserved.

What People are Saying About This

Rick Bass
Not since Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain…have I been so engrossed in the reading of a book…and in a story told so beautifully…. In the reading of it, we cross into amazing territory.

Meet the Author

Leif Enger was raised in Osakis, Minnesota, and worked as a reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio for nearly twenty years. He lives on a farm in Minnesota with his wife and two sons.

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Peace Like a River 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 233 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
My AP English class had to read this book, and the entire class absolutely loved it. The characters are extremely realistic, likeable, and enjoyable. The book mixes an adventureous tale of a boy with the heart felt loss of a family. There is also great symbolism and humor. I highly reccomend it!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
When I think of miracles, I think of biblical stories and getting out of difficult situations against overwhelming odds. A small miracle to me is receiving an undeserved A on a test because the teacher decides to grade on a curve. Another is making it to the bus on time despite oversleeping. For the Land family in Peace Like A River the miracles are much greater. Miracles occur throughout the adventures in this novel by Leif Enger. From an early age, Reuben Land watches his father Jeremiah, perform miracles as if they were normal. The very first miracle took place when Reuben, who is born breathless, is healed by his father. ¿Reuben Land in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.¿ At the moment, Reuben fills his lungs with air and survives. Although he survives, Reuben is tormented by asthma. Still, Reuben is grateful to be breathing at all, and decides that his life is by his father¿s side. There are other miracles that Jeremiah Land performs. He walks on air, and even heals Reuben¿s school superintendent by touching his diseased face. Unfortunately, miracles are sometimes illusive when the Land family needs them the most. When Jeremiah breaks up a horrible fight in the locker room, the furious boys swear revenge on the Land family. The thugs break into the Land¿s house one night and Davy, Reuben¿s older brother, shoots them to death. At first the public believes that Davy is a hero dispensing old-fashioned justice with his shotgun. Eventually, the public decides that Davy was a brutal criminal who lures the hoodlums to his house with the intent to kill them. Davy is arrested and put in jail, but eventually breaks out and starts his life on the run. FBI agents arrive at the Land¿s house, and Jeremiah decides that it is time to take his children out of school and go wandering the country, following ¿signs¿ of God in search for Davy. While on their search, the Lands meet a friendly stranger, Roxanna, a widow and gas station owner. She has a personality that makes the Land family feel whole again. Occasionally the story feels like a folktale or a country western ballad mixed with complex grammar and expressions. There is also consistent talk of God and miracles. Fortunately, Reuben being no miracle worker himself, and making many mistakes along his journey, makes the story more believable. Peace Like A River is a story of family love, religious faith, and the huge amount of effort and trust required for both. Leif Enger¿s first novel is an amazing piece of writing and should be shared with anyone who wants to read about an amazing adventure.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Entire Bookclub loved it. So heart warming and rich in the language and ideals. What we need to hear more about today. Well written, and always moving. Character development is continuous, and you feel like you are present in every situation.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The story is wonderful, the characters full and earn your heart...but what I really love about this book is the language. My husband rarely reads, but I kept saying to him, 'Listen to this!' and I would read aloud a description or a conversation. The author has a true gift of words...he will create amazing images in your mind. This is a book I will read again and again!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great characters that you love and relate to. At some (really, only some) points the narrative was awkward and clunky.
irlandskisoprano More than 1 year ago
This is a family with simple characters, beautifully drawn. There is intelligence and humor and simplicity and joy. These are honest people who are struggling, but have the profound gifts of love, and joy and words. They fiercely care about each other and will go to any lengths to prove it. There is elegance in the prose, there is laughter and you care so much about them. The sister is a hoot. The use of the Western style melodrama of her poetry is hilarious and yet foreboding. The voice of the 11 year old narator is realistic about who he is, what he can and cannot do, and tells the story in such an assessible manner. You feel the cold, smell the coffee, worry about his breathing. You love this family. You will love this book.
TheMockingbird More than 1 year ago
This book made me remember what I loved about reading. Peace Like A River is an adventure like going down a river rapids. Swede reminds me of Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird. If you do nothing else this year, read Leif Enger's first novel.
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AndiC007 More than 1 year ago
One of my very favorites! It's been awhile since I've last read, but it's one of maybe 3-4 books that I've read and re-read. Three times i think. Highly recommend!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I never get tired of re-reading this book. A friend recommended it to me and I pick it up every couple of years and re-read it.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have been looking for 10 years to find a book I enjoy more than this, and have not found one. Do yourself a huge favor and read it.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I like this book a lot. It really got me hooked on the first page when it talks about how Ruben was born, and from that point on I couldn't put the book down. Even though it was one of the books required for summer reading I would have read it on my own time. Great read! :D
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book was interesting and exciting from beginning to end. I would recommend it to others.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible either
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have been an avid reader for 30 years and Peace Like A River is among my top 10. It's about love, it's about perseverance and it's about to make me cry just thinking about it.
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patio14 More than 1 year ago
Felt very connected with the characters. It had an emotional ending for me. Best i have read in a while.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
One of the most incredible books I have read in a ling long time.