Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Review: Peace Like a River

Summary: Set in the Minnesota countryside and North Dakota Badlands of the early 1960s, Peace Like a River is a moving, engrossing, beautifully told story about one family's quest to retrieve its most wayward member. Reuben Land, the novel's asthmatic and self-effacing eleven-year-old narrator, recounts an unforgettable journey riddled with outlaw tales, heartfelt insights, and bona fide miracles. Born without air in his lungs, Reuben is keenly aware of the gift of breath-and, by extension, the gift of life. Time and again, both gifts are bestowed on Reuben by his father, a gentlemanly soul who works as a school janitor and has the power-and faith-to bestow true miracles. But when Davy (Reuben's brother) kills two intruders who break into the Land home with evil intent, and then escapes from prison while his trial is in progress, events seem to have worsened beyond the aid of miracles. Or have they? For, once Reuben and his family set out to find Davy, the reader eventually witnesses rivers, plains, and city lights unseen by mortal eyes.

Equal parts tragedy, romance, adventure yarn, and meditation, Peace Like a River is an inspired story of family love, religious faith, and the lifelong work and trust required of both. Leif Enger's first novel is a work of easy generosity and uncommon wisdom, a book to be shared with friends and loved ones. -- Grove Atlantic

When one of the members of my book club selected PEACE LIKE A RIVER by Leif Enger, I was actually pretty excited. I had heard good things about the book when it came out around eight years ago, and I knew it had won a load of awards. Check out this very impressive list: A Book Sense Reading Group Suggestion, Book Sense—Book of the Year for Adult Fiction, Book Sense—76 Selection, Time Magazine—Best Books of 2001, The Los Angeles Times—Best Books of 2001, New York Times—Paperback Best Seller, Los Angeles Times—Best Seller, Boston Globe—Best Seller, San Francisco Chronicle—Best Seller, Denver Post—Best Seller, Publishers Weekly—Best Seller. I had a feeling that I was going to be in for a treat.

There are so many wonderful things about this book that I don't know where to start. I guess the most obvious one for me, though, is Leif Enger's writing style. This book is just incredible well-written, and I can't believe how much the author accomplished in this story. The characters are extremely well developed and memorable; and the story captures your attention and keeps your interest throughout. However, the real beauty of this novel to me was how the author incorporated so many themes and so much symbolism into the story. I just loved Mr. Enger's prose, and I definitely intend to read his next novel SO BRAVE, YOUNG AND HANDSOME. Leif Enger is one very gifted writer! If you'd like to learn a little more about the author, check out this interview with him where he discusses writing about PEACE LIKE A RIVER.

One of the themes that really hit home for me was the theme about breathing or lack of breathing. Like Reuben, I have asthma; but unlike Reuben, I can treat mine with medicine not just steam and baking soda. Many times throughout this story, the author described in amazing detail the struggle Reuben had to take each breath. I swear I could almost feel Reuben's concentrated effort to breathe. There are so many references to breathing (and the difficulty in breathing) that these references begin to take on a bigger meaning and actually represent living and life. I thought the author did a wonderful job with this symbolism -- he got the point across yet it was still subtle.

Another thing that I really appreciated about PEACE LIKE A RIVER were the characters. Often times when I read a novel, I only relate to one or two characters (and I'm actually happy with that.) In this book, however, there are just so many terrific characters. I became very attached to the entire Land family, and I felt that each character added so much to this story -- each in their own way. It is impossible not to love Reuben, the young boy who narrates this novel, as well as his father, a man who is driven by his faith and love of his family. I also found myself falling for Reuben's little sister Swede who spend much of her time writing poems about a character from the wild-west. I even liked the arrival of Roxanna and what she came to represent in the children's lives. I can pretty much assure you that you, too, will adore these characters and that they will make a lasting impression on your heart.

I also really liked how the author wrote this novel using so many literary illusions, bible stories, and other mentions of historical information. I have to admit that I am kind of in awe of how he incorporated all of these things into this story in what appeared an effortless manner. These smaller stories served to point out things occurring in the larger story, but they didn't detract from it. I also really enjoyed reading about Swede's obsession with the Wild West as well as the poems she wrote about this time. I loved how Swede's poems not only told the story of Sunny Sundown but also represented the personal journey that the Land family was on.

I am really looking forward to our meeting this evening because I think there will be a lot to discuss. I am so glad that there is a reading guide for this novel because I think our group is going to need some pre-made questions to stay on track (if you know what I mean.) When I read these questions, I was actually surprised by some of them -- I knew the book was deep, but these questions really give you some things to think about. Not only do I think it will be interesting to discuss the various characters in this story, but I also think that it's going to be fascinating to delve into some of the themes in this book including life and death, religion, faith, family, ethics, and good versus evil. In addition, I'll be curious to hear what the others in my group think about all of the literary allusions and bible stories that the author wove into this story. It should be a great evening with loads of "literary" things to talk about. I'll be sure to write a brief recap and post it after our meeting.

13 comments:

bermudaonion said...

That sounds like a fabulous book - I can't wait to see what the rest of your book club thinks.

Anonymous said...

Great review. I am going to suggest this book for my book club!

Amy said...

I have got to read this book. I've had it on the TBR forever, ever since Andrew Peterson recommended it. I've pretty much loved everything he recommends. He's like my Oprah.

I think I put it off because it's not a quick read is it?

Stacie said...

I gave both of Enger's books to my dad and he loved both of them. Now I just need to find time to read them too! Thanks for the great review!

Beth F said...

I have been wanting to read this almost since it came out. I must see about tracking it down now.

mountainsofbooks said...

My husband read this book earlier in the year and really enjoyed it.

Dar said...

I've never heard of this book before but it certainly sounds like something I'd like. Thanks for the review, I'll check it out further.

Nicole said...

This sound fabulous Julie. It's funny because I was looking at it the other day and considering whether I wanted it to buy it or out. So I guess it is either a good or a bad thing that I hadn't read your review at the time. It's definitely good for the wallet in any case.

Anonymous said...

For a books that deals with all of the above, but in a completely different, dark way, try Chris Kape's "A Diary of Wasted Years," by ELoquent Books. Comes to grab you by the throat but it's worth it.

Carrie K. said...

What a wonderful review! Makes me think it's time for a re-read of this one. I loved it when I read it, but it's been a few years.

Icedream said...

I'm so glad you posted such a wonderful review of this book! My book group read this book a few months ago and it has become one of our favorites. It was fabulous and a rare one in that everyone in the group agreed they liked it (or loved it). I hope you have encouraged many readers to give it a try.

Gwendolyn B. said...

I've owned this book for a long time and have yet to crack the spine. Now I'll move it off the bookshelf and onto the nightstand. Thanks for spotlighting it!

3m.michelle said...

I read this a few years ago and thought it was great.