Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River

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Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Peace Like a River, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon

The plot of the novel uses many tropes and motifs often found in traditional Westerns: murder as self-defense, particularly in defense of one's family; escaping the law on horseback; and a loveable, misunderstood hero on the run. Both Swede and Reuben, as lovers of the fictionalized American West, use these tropes to borrow meaning and assign it to the events they experience throughout the novel. This turns the novel into a critical study of how fiction influences reality, and what the consequences are of leaning heavily on fictionalized models of life.

Throughout the novel and particularly after the Lands leave Roofing to head West, Swede records their journey in an idealized and embellished style reminiscent of her beloved Western novels. Reuben shares with the reader that while he'll wholeheartedly defend Swede's written account of events, Swede writes about her family's saga without any mention that everyone involved uses cars instead of horses—to take her account at face value would lead someone to believe that Jeremiah and his children are tracking Davy on horseback through the Wild West. This represents an inability or unwillingness on Swede's part to reconcile her idealized version of the West with what North Dakota actually holds for the Lands. In Swede's imaginative perception, Davy remains an innocent man wronged by outlaws, and she clings to the belief that Davy will emerge from this ordeal triumphant.

Because of her obsession with the myth of the American West, Swede finds Davy's situation particularly satisfying. Davy's story seems straight out a novel, as he escapes on horseback from being unjustly jailed, heads West, and runs from the law. As Swede sees it, Davy is no different than the righteous cowboys in her novels or Sunny Sundown, the hero of her epic poem. Essentially, in order to deal with Davy's absence, Swede transforms her beloved real-life brother into an idealized fictional character. Reuben follows Swede in this logic until he reconnects with Davy and discovers that the idyllic life they thought Davy was leading in exile bears little similarity to Davy's reality. Seeing the truth of Davy's life on the run, Reuben must reconsider how useful Swede's thought process actually is. Reuben is haunted by the thought of Davy freezing to death in the harsh North Dakota winter after he sees the shack where Davy lives, and it's a powerful enough image to contribute to Reuben's decision to betray his brother. This suggests that fictionalizing something might make dealing with the unknown easier, as it doesn't require someone to challenge their beliefs, but engaging with the truth and evaluating the facts at hand can lead to greater understanding and decisions with actual weight in the real world.

Reuben, as the narrator, asks the reader to engage with his story and the people within it by presenting his account as entirely truthful, while acknowledging that parts of the story seem far too fantastical to be real. Notably, Reuben doesn't insist that the reader accept the story as fact. Rather, he consistently instructs the reader to "make of it what you will," suggesting that even if a reader takes Reuben's story as entirely fictional, there's still something to gain from it. This presents the idea that while engaging with fiction to the point of forsaking reality can prove to be blinding, blending the two provides life with a richness and nuance that cannot be attained otherwise.

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Fiction, Reality, and the American West Quotes in Peace Like a River

Below you will find the important quotes in Peace Like a River related to the theme of Fiction, Reality, and the American West.
His Separate Shadow Quotes

It took me a second to realize he meant us. Dread landed flopping in my stomach. We'd never had an enemy before, unless you counted Russia.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Davy Land, Tommy Basca
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:

Davy is telling Reuben that Israel Finch and Tommy Basca told Dad that they were watching the Land family after Dad beat Israel and Tommy up in the locker room. For Reuben, hearing this is the first time that an enemy has a face, a name, and is truly after his family. When Reuben mentions Russia, he's referring to the Cold War (and probably the Cuban Missile Crisis, in particular) which, while very intense at the time, likely remained a theoretical threat for someone Reuben's age. Russia, then, while technically an enemy, doesn't seem to scare Reuben the same way that Israel and Tommy do. In this way, the novel begins to explore what makes a good villain. Reuben's thought process seems to suggest that proximity and specifically targeting his family are qualities indicative of a compelling and scary bad guy.


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Your Toughened Heart Quotes

When did it come to Davy Land that exile is a country of shifting borders, hard to quit yet hard to endure, no matter your wide shoulders, no matter your toughened heart?

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land, Davy Land
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuben tells the reader that he and Swede often wondered when Davy realized the consequences that would come from shooting Israel and Tommy. This passage suggests, first and foremost, that Davy will suffer consequences, much as he (and all the Land children) attempt to evade them. The consequences, however, aren't necessarily what anyone thought in the immediate aftermath, when Davy's actions seemed heroic and driven by loyalty.

Reuben's phrasing here also foreshadows the kind of life Davy will lead going forward. Davy will lead a life apart from the rest of his family and apart from their community. Reuben suggests that this kind of solitude is difficult, no matter how strong Davy might be. It humanizes Davy and turns him into a far more complex character, with complex reasoning and motivations, than the heroic older brother Reuben saw up to this point.

Peeking at Eternity Quotes

Well, we all hold history differently inside us. For Swede such episodes retold themselves into a seamless and momentous narrative; she had a Homeric grasp on the significance of events, and still does; one of her recent letters asks, Is it hubris to believe we all live epics? (Perhaps it is, but I suspect she's not actually counting on me for an answer.)

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Swede Land
Page Number: 55
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuben is telling the reader how Swede integrated the story of Dad being picked up by the tornado into the greater narrative of her family's history. As the novel progresses, the reader begins to see just how fully Swede views her life as an epic. When she encounters elements she doesn't particularly care for, like cars, she simply chooses to not include those elements. This allows Swede full artistic control over how she makes sense of her life. This does, however, blind Swede to some of the harsher realities of life. When she refuses to consider that Davy might not be innocent, it fits perfectly into her constructed narrative that casts Davy as a misunderstood, honor-driven outlaw, but it's not something that functions particularly well in real life. In this way, Swede finds her constructed narrative consistently at odds with reality, which in turn creates situations in which Reuben must decide for himself which version of events is the most useful or the most true.

But the whole thing bothered Davy, and with Dad out of earshot he'd say so. You couldn't get blown around in a tornado, he said, and not get banged up. It didn't make sense. It wasn't right.
Swede challenged him. "Are you calling Dad a liar?"
"Of course not. I know it happened. It just shouldn't have. Don't you see that?"

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land (speaker), Davy Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad)
Page Number: 56
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuben explains Davy's reaction to the story of Dad being picked up by the tornado. Throughout the novel, Davy expresses a sense of discomfort with putting blind faith in religion. Here, he struggles to reconcile what he knows is true with what he thinks should have logically happened. This suggests that Davy doesn't believe that religion is logical. While Reuben and possibly even Dad might agree with that sentiment, it doesn't stop them from putting their belief in a higher power and existing comfortably with the illogical nature of the miracles. Davy's interpretation also suggests that while religion might not always make sense, it doesn't have to make sense in order to work in someone's life. Davy accepts that religion works in his father's life even as he finds it illogical. Similarly, Reuben's strong belief in God's guidance indicates that he believes that God guides Davy just as he guides Reuben or Dad. Essentially, nobody is exempt from God's guidance, whether they want it, or want to accept it, or not.

"Just because I write it doesn't mean it really happened."

Related Characters: Swede Land (speaker), Reuben Land
Related Symbols: Sunny Sundown, Valdez
Page Number: 69
Explanation and Analysis:

Swede is attempting to explain to Reuben that she cannot write the scene in which Sunny Sundown kills Valdez in a way that makes it real. For Swede, this represents a loss of control that she hasn't felt before. Prior to this experience, she made sense of her life through writing and experienced complete control over her characters and their fates. When she finds herself unable to kill Valdez, it represents the loss of control that she feels in her own world following her abduction by Israel Finch and Tommy Basca. Prior to her abduction, Israel and Tommy were scary, but Swede wasn't necessarily aware of the extent of the threat they posed. Afterwards, however, they became monsters, just as Valdez did. As Valdez represents a more overarching sense of fear and loss of control, he becomes uncatchable and unkillable.

When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll Quotes

My sister's resentments notwithstanding, Margery's pitiful recital contained a certain truth that I, at least, eventually had to face. Tommy Basca was an idiot, but he wasn't purebred evil. You could see looking at him that he might be somebody's Bubby.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land, Tommy Basca
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

After weeks of running stories that hailed Davy as a hero, the newspapers finally printed an article that painted Tommy Basca and Israel Finch as kind, loved, and misunderstood victims. In this passage Reuben draws a clear distinction between Israel and Tommy: Israel was indeed a cruel person, while Tommy merely got caught up in Israel's cruel deeds.

For Reuben, realizing that Tommy isn't pure evil happens as he grows up and develops a sense of moral nuance regarding what happened between Davy, Tommy, and Israel. It begins to point to the fact that all people are worthy of life, not just "good" people. When Reuben recognizes that Tommy's family may have felt grief and experienced loss at his death, he recognizes as well that his own point of view is a selfish one. This mirrors Reuben's later realization about Andreeson, when Reuben decides to betray Davy because he believes that Andreeson might be in danger. Thus, the novel suggests that part of growing up and developing a more adult view on life entails learning to value people based on their inherent worth as people.

A Boy on a Horse Quotes

They were the harshest words I'd ever heard him speak. I watched him sipping his coffee, his face foreign with misgiving. How I wanted to understand him! But I was eleven, and my brother had escaped from the pit where my vanity had placed him (a vain notion itself, Swede has since pointed out, yet it was certainty to me). How could my father not be joyous over such a thing? Who in this world could ask for more?

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Swede Land, Davy Land
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:

Following Davy's escape from jail, Swede declares that a posse won't be able to find him. Dad tells her to speak sense or be quiet, and Reuben struggles to understand his father's thought process.

Reuben and Swede are both swept up by what seems like a thrilling example of frontier justice. Because Davy escapes from jail, he also escapes the consequences of murder as set out by the court of law. Further, as both Swede and Reuben are enthralled with the idea of the wild West, Davy becomes a misunderstood, heroic outlaw on the run, one who lives by his own code of honor rather than by the rules set down by society and courts. Because Swede and Reuben see Davy as a hero who did nothing wrong, they believe he shouldn't face any consequences for killing Israel and Tommy. Dad, however, understands that Davy did something wrong. He is able to feel love for Davy and simultaneously believe that Davy should have to face the consequences of his actions, which illustrates a level of maturity that Reuben and Swede simply aren't able to grasp at this point.

"She wasn't his wife!" Swede flared. Past tense, you notice—history, even the fictive kind, being beyond our influence.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land (speaker)
Related Symbols: Sunny Sundown
Page Number: 106
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuben and Swede are arguing over whether it's appropriate for a woman to rescue Sunny Sundown if she isn't his wife. When it suits Swede (as in this passage), she is able to make something true just because she wrote that it happened. Reuben notes specifically that Swede throws off all responsibility for writing it in the first place by believing fully that once the story is written, it's true and unchangeable. This shows again how Swede engages with the intersection between fiction and reality by merging the two. In doing so, the fictional aspects of her writing become true and it becomes difficult to even differentiate between fact and fiction. Notably too, Swede doesn't show discretion for when fiction is appropriate or helpful: later, when she writes about nightshirts, Reuben mentions that the writing was inspired by a library book, but the "original research" is meant to be taken as entirely the product of Swede's imagination. Swede herself, however, takes it as fact, not fiction. It allows her a sense of control over her world and the freedom to explore how something becomes real.

At War with This Whole World Quotes

I feared the outcome of honest speech—that it might reach forward in time and arrange events to come. If I told Swede I wanted Davy back, even at the cost of his freedom, might that not happen? And if I said what I sensed was the noble thing... might that not bring despair on this whole crusade of ours?

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land, Davy Land
Related Symbols: Valdez
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuben struggles to answer Swede when she asks if he still wants Davy back even if he has to go to jail. Reuben has seen the power of prophecy and prayer play out time and again as God leads Dad through life, but Reuben questions both his own power to bring events into being and the wisdom of trying to do so. This recalls Swede's struggle to kill Valdez, which, at its heart, was a struggle to exert control and make sense of events. While Swede tried and failed, Reuben fears even trying because of the possibility of the consequences. One of the potential consequences is that the West itself turns out to be nothing but an exercise in futility, while the alternative sees Davy's personal sense of justice and honor overtaken by the rational court of law. Both of these outcomes illustrate Reuben's youth in that they represent a very black and white view of justice and consequences and fail to consider the morally ambiguous options that lie in between.

Could a person believe so strongly one way, yet take the opposite route? I wanted to ask Swede, but again, if I posed it aloud, it might become true, and then we were in for all sorts of tangles.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land, Davy Land, August Schultz
Page Number: 153
Explanation and Analysis:

Swede and Reuben wonder why August gave Davy a car to escape if he wanted Davy to turn himself in. The fact that Reuben is asking questions like this once again illustrates that he's growing and beginning to consider things that challenge his very black and white view of the world. Here, he questions the idea of moral ambiguity itself, and whether it's even possible for a person to believe that two different things are both right and good. While it's obvious that August believes that Davy did something wrong and should accept the consequences, he acts as he does in order to help Davy continue following his own honor code and sense of justice.

Reuben's unwillingness to ask the question out loud suggests that he's not fully ready to embrace or explore the murky outcomes of the question. This illustrates that Reuben is still very young and immature. At this point, he's willing and able to ask the question, but not to answer it.

The Skin Bag Quotes

I thought it was odd, the trainman not recognizing him and raising a stink, but Swede pointed out that this sort of thing happened all the time. How many times did Zorro gallop magnificently out of town, everyone watching, then show up five minutes later as Diego, still breathing hard? And no one ever figured that out.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land, Roxanna Crawley
Page Number: 192
Explanation and Analysis:

Roxanna is telling Reuben and Swede about her great-uncle, a gunsmith and a doctor who dabbled in outlawry with Butch Cassidy. Her great-uncle occasionally patched up the very people he shot and they supposedly didn't notice, which Reuben finds suspect. Notice here how Reuben is willing to suspend his disbelief for a fictional tale (Zorro), but not for a tale that's meant to be taken as fact and history (Roxanna’s story). This suggests that Reuben is developing critical thinking skills and growing up. However, Reuben doesn't necessarily make the connection that an integral part of fiction is that a reader or viewer is asked outright to suspend their disbelief (in fact, doing so is essential to enjoying the story). Instead, he's still taking fiction as fact, which indicates that while he's certainly on his way to growing up and attaining maturity, he's not there yet.

Under the Gibbon Moon Quotes

Were Dad's heart my tablet I'd have taken it up and erased Davy's name, so terribly did I wish to stay, and had it been whispered to me that all of Roofing had burned... I'd have rolled down the window and shouted thanks to Heaven...

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Davy Land, Roxanna Crawley
Page Number: 198
Explanation and Analysis:

As the Lands and Roxanna head out into the snow for a picnic, Reuben thinks that he desperately wants to stay in North Dakota. Reuben finds in this moment that his loyalty has shifted greatly. While he still feels loyalty and responsibility to Dad and Swede, his loyalty to Davy and Roofing seem to be waning. This passage is an indication that the search for Davy won't bring the kind of fulfillment that the Lands are looking for, since more important things have emerged. Roxanna at this point, for example, seems more deserving of Reuben's loyalty, given the care and kindness she shows the Lands. Reuben wishes here that he could influence the power of religion, since that's what's guiding Dad, and make it lead Dad to a decision to stay with Roxanna.

The Throbbing Heart of News Quotes

For some reason I recalled old Mr. Finch, freezing in the wind outside the post office. I felt awful about Mr. Finch and wanted to believe Davy might have too.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Davy Land, Israel Finch, Mr. Finch
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

When Reuben first meets Davy in North Dakota he wonders if Davy feels bad for what he did, though he isn't able to ask without looking disloyal. Reuben realizes he's carrying around guilt for what Davy did—guilt that he later realizes Davy isn't carrying himself. While Davy is older and appears to be more mature, he lacks the ability to see the value in feeling bad for what he's done. Mr. Finch here is a symbol of the consequences of Davy's actions. He also becomes an easy character to consider in terms of moral nuance. Reuben continues to mature as he realizes that while Mr. Finch may be a drunk, he still experiences loss like any other person. The fact that Reuben realizes this while Davy refuses to consider the possibility shows that in some ways, Reuben is far more mature than Davy. However, at this point in the story, Reuben believes that in order to perform maturity, he must first perform loyalty and not voice that he's growing up in other ways, as well.

Led? This was supposed to mean the Lord was in charge and paving your way, such as letting you get fired so you'll be free to leave town, or sending you an Airstream you can go in comfort. Dad knew something about being led, I realized, yet this I could not buy.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Roxanna Crawley, Martin Andreeson
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuben has returned to Roxanna's house after riding with Davy to discover that Dad has gone out driving with Mr. Andreeson. Roxanna explains that Dad was led to do so.

Reuben's reasoning shows how intent he is on viewing Andreeson as an enemy. Despite the fact that Dad's firing was exceptionally cruel and made it seem as though God wasn't taking care of Dad, Reuben has evidently been able to make sense of it and fit it into his narrative. In the case of Andreeson, however, Reuben doesn't just see it as a lapse of God's oversight, he sees it as a betrayal by Dad himself. By partnering with Andreeson, Reuben sees that Dad is giving up on the entire project of the Land family's journey west to find Davy. Reuben feels betrayed, as it seems as though Dad has switched sides and decided to support the system of justice that wishes to put Davy behind bars. Reuben can't believe that God would stand for such a thing after leading them so far.

The Curious Music That I Hear Quotes

Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?
No sir.
All I can do is say, Here's how it went. Here's what I saw.
I've been there and am going back.
Make of it what you will.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker)
Page Number: 311
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuben discusses how doubt, both his own and that of others, plays into his belief system. While Reuben humanizes himself by admitting that he does occasionally experience doubt, he still believes that he's a witness and a disciple of Jeremiah. He's come to the point where his belief is strong enough to simply take the fantastical nature of his story as fact. Further, he doesn't need the reader or anyone else to necessarily believe him; he just wants his story to be heard (or read). This shows that whether or not a reader agrees with Reuben is beside the point. Reuben simply requires that the reader take in the story and form their own conclusions about it, which suggests that there's something to gain from his story, regardless of whether it's taken as fact or fiction.