Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River

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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.
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon

The members of the Land family are extremely loyal to one another. Reuben and the reader are led to believe that it's Davy's loyalty to his family and his girlfriend Dolly that leads him to heroically kill Tommy Basca and Israel Finch in the first place. However, as Davy and the rest of the family move westward, the very idea of loyalty—what exactly loyalty means, and who's deserving of it—is tested and questioned.

Initially, loyalty is thought to be Davy's primary motive for killing Tommy and Israel, and he's celebrated in the newspapers for bravely protecting his family against intruders. However, it comes to light at the trial that Davy's intentions might not have been as pure as Reuben and Swede were allowed to believe. They learn that Davy smashed the windows of Israel's car earlier in the evening, essentially inviting the break-in later that night. This raises the question of whether Davy acted solely out of loyalty to his family, or if a part of him actually wanted an excuse to kill Tommy and Israel.

The novel continues to explore the morality of loyalty when Reuben and Davy reconnect in North Dakota. Reuben feels morally bankrupt and describes himself as a "ratfink" when he threatens Davy with telling Jeremiah and Swede about him if Davy doesn't show Reuben where he lives. In this situation, Reuben places conditions on his own loyalty that he finds morally questionable. Reuben struggles to understand his own reasoning behind this, but he eventually attributes the shaky morality of this deal to his own desire to receive a display of loyalty from Davy. Notably, Reuben becomes physically ill and feels increasingly guilty as he endeavors to maintain his loyalty to Davy. This offers the possibility that while exchanges of loyalty like this might be effective, they can exert a high physical and emotional toll.

When Davy reappears in Reuben's life and Reuben begins to understand that Davy isn't necessarily either the glowing hero or the remorseful wrongdoer, Reuben is caught between loyalty to the family's journey West, and loyalty to his brother. Reuben finds it especially difficult to understand his father's decision to cooperate with the federal agent Andreeson. He sees it as a betrayal of Davy, while Jeremiah sees it as the only way to find Davy and keep him as safe as possible. While Reuben initially chooses to place his loyalty in Davy by agreeing to keep Davy's whereabouts a secret, Reuben changes his mind when he begins to suspect that Davy himself has misplaced his loyalty by trusting Jape Waltzer. This turn of events suggests that while family members may pledge loyalty to other people outside the family, they largely do so in an attempt to remain loyal and protect their family members. Neither Jeremiah nor Reuben wants to harm Davy, even when they seemingly betray him; they simply want him and those participating in the search for him to be safe.

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Loyalty and Family Quotes in Peace Like a River

Below you will find the important quotes in Peace Like a River related to the theme of Loyalty and Family.
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.

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.

It was the fact that Chester the Fester, the worst man I'd ever seen, even worse in his way than Israel Finch, got a whole new face to look out of and didn't even know to be grateful; while I, my father's son, had to be still and resolute and breathe steam to stay alive.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Israel Finch, Superintendent Chester Holgren
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Holgren just fired Dad from his position as school janitor, and during the conversation, Dad slapped Mr. Holgren and healed his acne. Reuben is incensed by the injustice of this, and the anger he feels is indicative of his youth and his sense of loyalty. While Reuben doesn't say it outright, he seems to believe that when Dad uses his miracle-working abilities to heal unsavory people like Mr. Holgren rather than his own son. To Reuben, this represents a betrayal of familial loyalty. Essentially, Reuben feels he's more deserving of these miracles than individuals who actively do harm to the Land family. While Reuben's thought process here is understandable, it also illustrates how childishly simplistic his view of justice is. Reuben would like to see those who do his family harm punished, and those who are part of the family or help the family rewarded. However, the world is more complicated than good people versus bad people, and learning this is one way that Reuben grows up.

Late in the Night When the Fires Are Out Quotes

"We'll wait till they're asleep—take some of Mrs. DeCuellar's cookies—offer 'em to the guard, tell him we've got to see Davy—when he turns to me you grab his gun," and so on. It was one of those rare moments when I actually felt older than Swede. Seizing it, I told her to grow up.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land (speaker), Davy Land, Mrs. DeCuellar
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Swede is planning to break Davy out of jail after the first disappointing day of Davy's trial. While it's apparent to the reader that Reuben is definitely older and more mature than Swede, it's not always as apparent to Reuben and Swede themselves. Swede's youth is extremely apparent here in her slapdash plan to bribe the guard with cookies, while Reuben's maturity is also obvious as he calls Swede out on the immaturity of the plan. However, the fact that Swede is making this plan in the first place is suggestive of her confidence, her unwavering loyalty to Davy, and her simplistic sense of justice. Swede allows her loyalty to Davy to blind her to the fact that Davy might not be the hero she thought he was. She's unwilling to consider that there might be consequences for his actions, and as such she formulates plans for her own actions that are intended to subvert the law in a similar way.

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.

The Substance of Things Hoped For Quotes

How could we not have faith? For the foundation had been laid in prayer and sorrow. Since that fearful night, Dad had responded with the almost impossible work of belief. He had burned with repentance as though his own hand had fired the gun.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad)
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

The Lands are preparing to leave for North Dakota, despite Dr. Nokes' incredulousness that they don't have a set destination or directions for wherever they're going. Reuben, however, shows that he believes fully that God is guiding his family towards Davy. At least in the lead-up to the trip, Reuben is fully willing to place his faith in his father and in religion.

The way that Reuben describes his father as burning with repentance continues to draw similarities between Dad and Jesus. In particular, this suggests that Dad sacrifices for his own children in a manner similar to Jesus sacrificing himself for all Christians. Dad is doing the spiritual work that Davy presumably isn't, and he is working to make things right through prayer, since he can't make things right in a court of law. This also foreshadows Dad's death and Reuben's miraculous recovery, which is a similarly Jesus-like sacrifice for one of the children.

At War with This Whole World Quotes

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.

Something Warm Quotes

"Well," I said, "he wrote a whole book and it's in the Bible." Even Dad, much as I loved him, didn't have anything in there.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Swede Land
Page Number: 169
Explanation and Analysis:

Swede tries to compare Dad to Moses after the Lands make it through Mandan without being caught by police, and Reuben attempts to steer Swede towards a lesser prophet like Jonah. Swede refers to Jonah as a "griper." Reuben's offense at comparing Dad to Moses suggests that Reuben's loyalty to Dad has limits. It suggests that Dad's miracles, wonderful as they are, are worth less in Reuben's eyes because Dad hasn't written anything in the Bible.

In an overarching way, the novel itself becomes a bible of sorts. In it, Reuben tells a story that's focused much more on Dad and Dad's miracles than on Davy, though Davy drives the action. In this way, Dad does get to figure as a prophet of a bible-like text. Despite Reuben's hesitation here as a child, in the retelling Reuben remedies and atones for this doubt and hesitation by telling his father's story.

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

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.

Winning Her Hand Quotes

"If you like Mr. Andreeson better as an enemy, then keep him one. Maybe that's your job as a boy—as a brother. My job is different."
"How come?"
"Because I'm the dad. I have to heed the Lord's instructions."

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad) (speaker), Martin Andreeson
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuben and Dad are discussing why Dad has decided to work with Mr. Andreeson, the enemy in question, to find Davy. Here, Dad doesn't ask Reuben to understand that Mr. Andreeson isn't necessarily an enemy. Rather, Dad wants Reuben to understand that Dad is following a different definition of loyalty than Reuben’s, and that their differences are okay. This continues to challenge Reuben's growing grasp of moral ambiguity and nuance.

While Reuben sees Dad's decision to work with Andreeson as a betrayal of Davy, Dad sees it as following the word of God. This suggests that, for Jeremiah at least, loyalty to God is more important than the type of loyalty to Davy that would allow Davy to escape consequences. In short, Jeremiah sees finding Davy and making sure that Davy faces consequences for his actions as doing the right thing, despite Reuben's belief otherwise.

But after talking with Dad, it was plain to me that Davy had done a grievous wrong. Don't misunderstand, I backed my brother all the way. Yet it had come to mean something whether he felt anything like repentance.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Davy Land
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:

Reuben describes the things he learns on his rides with Davy, which range from Sara's unfortunate circumstances to the realization that Davy doesn't see the point in regretting his crime. Through talking with Dad, Reuben comes to realize that it is indeed possible to think one way and do something different, which answers a question Reuben had once asked. Reuben comes to see that it's possible—and it’s actually his lived reality—to believe that what Davy did was wrong, but to still love him and want him to escape the consequences of the law. Davy, however, remains fixated on his own code of honor. He doesn't see the use in attempting to merge his own system of justice with the system that wants to persecute him. Davy then, despite the fact that he's considered an adult, demonstrates a very one-dimensional and immature grasp of morality. Because of this, Reuben momentarily gets to seem older and more mature than his older brother.

The Red Farm Quotes

"I can't," he replied, after a moment. "You know that, Swede." He looked, right then, for the first time in years, his age, which was seventeen.

Related Characters: Davy Land (speaker), Reuben Land, Jeremiah Land (Dad), Swede Land
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis:

On Davy's final visit home, Swede asks him if he's going to stay. Throughout the novel, Reuben has been extremely focused on Davy's age and the fact that Davy is, for all intents and purposes, an adult. Here, in this very emotional moment, Davy finally looks like the kid that he is. This suggests that part of what made Davy an adult is the fact that he did such an exceptional job of acting like an adult. This shatters the childish belief held by Reuben and Swede that adulthood is attained when one meets and then passes specific milestones, like driving a car and shooting. When Davy drops the facade, it shows that adulthood isn't necessarily an end point. It's a continuous process and even Davy isn't finished yet.