Book Review: Leif Enger: Peace


Book Review: Leif Enger: Peace Like a River

Author: Leif Enger
Book: Peace Like a River
Recommendation: Lukewarm--great prose, poor story, sketchy, outrageous, and often unbelievable characters and motivations

Despite being beautifully written, Peace Like a River suffers from a great many problems, not the least of which is the fact that it is about five times longer than the story material supports. The story is episodic and not particularly insightful--it often strikes one as being a disjointed series of events connected only by being linked to the central characters. These characters, in turn, are largely caricatures in varying degrees of plausibility. Dad--a devout pentecostal Christian who is know to effect miracles and to walk on air; Swede, an astoundingly precocious young girl (perhaps nine years old) who writes the most astoundingly horrid Robert Service-like verse* about Mexican Outlaw Valdez and who seems to have an endless stream of anecdotes and information of dubious provenance about the Old West; Davey, eldest son and cold-blooded murderer with whom we are supposed to be sympathetic because his actions are taken in a supposedly just cause; Reuben, the narrator and the child who demonstrated one of his father's first miracles by breathing at all; Roxanna, a sketchily drawn woman who meets the family and immediately falls in love with them all inviting them into her house and her life, even though they are obviously refugees and escapees.

Perhaps some of my antipathy toward this novel is the rave reviews that come from the media about this "profound" novel of faith and miracles. Peace Like a River has been compared to Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird. It bears no resemblance to either of these. The only similarity is that the main portion of the book deals with the life of children during a crisis in the family. The writing, while reasonably adept and occasionally evocative, is not of the very finest. Perhaps the author's other limitations also cripple the prose to some degree.

The story concerns what happens when the eldest brother in the family murders two people (in a premeditated fashion) and then flees justice. It also concerns the power of faith and the effect of miracles. Unfortunately in this overblown structure much that is good gets completely lost. We have no real sense of the miraculous and no sense of the normal. The children are eighty-year olds hidden in the bodies of pre-adolescents. Father is a fountain of mercy, kindness, rightness, and miraculous healing powers and other mysterious powers that blind state-troopers to the fleeing group, but still allow the feds to ultimately find them.

Thematically, the book is repugnant, as we are asked to sympathize with Davey who murders two people in about as cold-blooded a fashion as possible. Were that not bad enough, other characters allow murders, injuries, and other mayhem to occur. We are supposed to sympathize and care whether or not these people are brought to justice. I found myself only wishing that they would be incarcerated and this labored story could wend to its rightful rest.

It took me several weeks to force myself through this book--had it not been for some truly sterling moments in the writing and two different book-groups reading it, I would have abandoned it long ago. I can recommend almost any other book reviewed in the last month or so before recommending this disappointing and laborious effort at narrative. I am absolutely convinced that this author can really write--I hope that next time he chooses to give us a story worthy of his abilities.

Now, to give another perspective--I read this for a book group consisting of about ten people, most of the rest of whom enjoyed it tremendously, siting their sympathy with Swede most particularly as a compelling aspect of the novel. Chacun á son goût.

*Here a sample of the dreadful "The Shooting of Dan McGrew"
A bunch of the boys were whooping it up in the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box was hitting a jag-time tune;
Back of the bar, in a solo game, sat Dangerous Dan McGrew,
And watching his luck was his light-o'-love, the lady that's known as Lou.

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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 21, 2003 7:44 AM.

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