“Peace Like a River” carried me away to another time and place… the Midwest in the 60’s. I was so caught up in the story and characters that I had to stay up late to finish this novel.
Reuben Land is the narrative voice and he is just eleven years old. When his family, especially his young sister, is threatened by the town bullies (violent, unredeemable chaps), the town’s sympathies are swayed by the media (sound familiar, folks?) Reuben puzzles over his neighbors ‘ reluctance to show support for his family . He relates the many times his dad, Jeremiah Land had been there for his neighbors… but apparently this was different. Reuben’s brother Davy, out of motives of self-defense, has committed murder and escapes before his trial results in the inevitable sentence of “guilty”.
The reader is carried through the Land family’s journey as they set out after a series of events to find Davy and try to pick up the pieces of their broken life. But can there really be any peaceful resolution for the Land family as Davy is pursued by police and federal agents?
“Swede said, “What would you give, to get Davy home?”
The way she asked it warned me she’d been thinking about this.
“Well, most things; I guess anything.”
“And then what if they stick him in jail?”
Not just a compelling story of family loyalty and revenge, the strongest element in this novel are the characters themselves.
Swede, the third grade-younger-sister in the Land family, is a poignant nine year old. Abandoned by her mother at a young age (as all three children were), the reader’s sympathies are engaged right away (even though Swede seems a little young to be writing ballads with such resonating prose).
There are small comforts interspersed here and there for the Land family as they find temporary asylum with old and new friends:
“And breakfast? What would you say to butter-crumbled eggs that trembled at the touch of your fork? To buttermilk biscuits under tumbling steam? To orange sides of salmon lying creamed upon blue saucers? What would you say to fresh peach pie, baked not the night before but that very morning? For breakfast? And through everything Mrs. DeCuellar, like a small sun beside her proud and outshone husband, beamed down on Swede and me… I couldn’t ever remember being so easily liked.”
Reuben’s father’s character is very likable. Seemingly having a hotline to heaven, Jeremiah Land is a man of ‘miracles’ and I can’t help but be a bit skeptical as Reuben relates story after story of his dad’s escapes from natural consequences. However, Jeremiah Land’s personality is never offensively ‘pushy’ and is in fact, worthy of the reader’s admiration as his patience with the offences of others (including his oldest son), weighs in.
And of course, there is young Reuben himself. An asthmatic from birth, Reuben’s voice comes through strongly in contrast to his battles with his weaker physical side. Reuben wants so badly to remain staunchly loyal to his older brother and finds himself frustrated and restricted by his own frailties. Reuben has to somehow find peace within himself and reconcile his family loyalty with doing the ‘right thing’.
“… I asked Dad why he kept laughing – what a sound that was, his laugh, low and confident again, like your best friend’s laugh in the darkness when you’ve believed he was gone forever.
And Dad said, Because I was praying this morning and I prayed Lord, send Davy home to us; or if not, Lord, do this: Send us to Davy.”