Most of the books I read are recommended by other avid readers. This system works great because I usually end up enjoying their recommendations, and it saves me the work of researching new reads on my own. Leif Enger's Peace Like a River was one such book. I probably wouldn't have bothered with it on my own, since I like interesting titles and the title Peace Like a River does nothing for me. Sure, it speaks of depth and deep emotion, but with no sign of whether I would enjoy the journey.
Fortunately, this is one example where the title doesn't do the story justice. Yes, 11-year-old Reuben Land's journey to find his outlaw older brother who has been accused of murder does have depth and emotion to it. But the well-written narrative is not bogged down with sentiment, and keeps up a comfortable pace to engage the reader. Not breakneck speed, mind you, but enough to keep the reader coming back for more. Within the first couple of pages my interest was piqued by the descriptions of Reuben's dad and the unapologetic accounts of miracles he has performed. Soon the details of how Reuben's troubled brother Davy kills two young men drew me deeper into the story, and by the time Davy escapes from jail and Reuben and his father and sister decide to track him down out west in the wintry Badlands, I was hooked.
This story of redemption isn't exactly subtle, folks. The religious themes are so pronounced that I worried sometimes about it crossing over into sickeningly didactic. But it never got that far. I felt like the narrative stayed balanced and true, exploring equally strong themes of family, love, and with the added fun factor of romanticizing the west.
But like I said, the story was clearly a redemption tale. It was obvious that the dad was to represent the Christ figure who gives of himself to save another, though the details of how large or small that sacrifice would be wasn't clear. What was also not clear was which of his sons was to be saved. The most obvious choice was Davy, the sinner on the run who had separated himself from family and civilization and ends up taking refuge with (or being captured by?) an evil man who clearly personifies the Devil. But at the same time Reuben, our honest and flawed narrator, is in need of redemption as well. Living with asthma that can be dangerously life-threatening, his dad voices his wish more than once that he could trade places and take this burden from him.
I was intrigued with how the dad was portrayed. Usually a fictional father who is so deeply religious is portrayed as authoritarian, judgmental, and unforgiving. But this was the opposite of Reuben's dad, who nonetheless was human and flawed despite the sense of the divine about him. It was a refreshing approach for such a character and each of the characters had a warmth and sincerity to them that engendered affection.
My only complaint was that the conclusion seemed to be lacking. I can't quite put my finger on it, but there was just something that didn't sit right with me about it. It didn't seem to hold up to the expectation that had been building throughout the book. Or maybe it's because it relied too heavily on some of the weakest characters to sustain it. But I still enjoyed it enough that I'll probably check out his second novel. After all, it comes with a good recommendation!