March 31, 2011

Peace Like a River

Such timing, this book entering my life, the landscape shifting and changing around me, just so. Come two more weeks into April, and I could not have abided a story with blizzards and below zero temperatures. Come one week earlier, and I would not have savored strong rivers and spring time like I do this day.

Also: pardon the antiquated language. This is how eleven-year-old Reuben Land talks, steeped as he is in his dad's KJB. Also, I have this terrible habit of falling in love with first-person narrators just like him, first-person narrators who believe that round and starchy words have a place on the tongue.

Peace Like a River. Minnesotan Leif Enger wrote a good one.

The book came out in 2001 and promptly garnered a bevy of accolades and "best-seller" labels. It's easy to see why. This story is nothing if not eminently readable. Let me just list some prevalent themes: family, tragedy, faith, love, adventure. You see what I mean? There is not a lot that is racy here, nothing that you wouldn't recommend to your mother or middle-school aged sister, but for the pure sake of story--character to plot to POV to scene--this tale sung for me, and really, isn't that the most important thing?

Rueben's and his family's story takes place in both Minnesota and North Dakota in the 1960s, and it's as much about miracles as it is about a family taking off in search of their outlaw brother. And, as in most adventure stories, the land--the family's last name, no less--plays a strong, sometimes miraculous, role. In an interview, Enger said it was hard for him "to fully picture a character without the ground he occupies, or his responses to new landscapes," and this to me feels exactly right. Our surroundings do play a significant role in how we experience our lives, how we think about the world, and how we tend to react to it. This is natural. Not a show, not an interview, not a Facebook status, and it's therefore a simple, accurate way to characterize. Say you're immersed in fog, for instance: Does it annoy you, do you grip the steering wheel, or does it, like Reuben says, "smell like April... [feel like something] you could weigh in a cupped hand" (141, 142)?

Say you're caught in a ground blizzard?

Say you stumble across a crack in the February earth that's spitting fire?

Say you are home again after a long time away, and it is springtime now, and there are memories you'd just as soon forget, and others you're afraid will fade? What does that look like, to you?

There is a line toward the end of the book that I love: "The pulse of the country came around me, as of voices lifted at great distance, and moved through me as I ran until the words came clear, and I sang with them a beautiful and curious chant" (302).

This will make sense after you read the book, which you should, preferably before summer arrives. But even if you don't, read at least that line again. Read it out loud. And listen for the pulse that is ever under our feet.

4 comments:

  1. Thanks for this recommendation, Emily. It's been on my shelf for a few years now, and it's snowing today (!?), so I just might have time to squeeze it in before REAL spring.

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  2. oh this is one of my favorite books and i love that it's by MN author. such beautiful writing and it makes me bawl everytime.

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  3. One of my favorite books...which you summarized so well in your review. You make me want to read it again; it's been a few years.

    Leif Enger is speaking about "place" this weekend at the Lake Region Writers Network Conference in Fergus Falls. I wish I could be there, but I can't.

    The LRWN's first literary journal is releasing at this conference. Check out my upcoming blog post (Thursday) to read about my connection.

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  4. Yes, all, a great book.

    I wish I could make it up to hear Leif, Audrey. I will most definitely check out your blog for LRWN news.

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