Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River By the Grace of Lurvy Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Christmas looks bleak for the Lands—Dad finds irregular work, but soon comes down with a bad cough. Reuben and Swede wonder if they could look appropriately grateful if they receive only oranges for Christmas like poor characters from books do. Ten days before Christmas, Dr. Nokes visits for tea and finds Dad's cough alarming.
Reuben and Swede try to come to terms with their bleak-looking Christmas by romanticizing the poverty they've read about in novels. They fixate on the material aspects of Christmas, rather than the fact that Dad is very ill.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Reuben says that years later, Dr. Nokes said his main concern wasn't Dad, but Reuben, as his asthmatic lungs would never be able to handle pneumonia. Back in the narrative, Dr. Nokes convinces Reuben that while Swede needs practice being a nurse and should care for Dad, Reuben should talk to Mr. Layton about tearing down his unused corncrib (a ventilated outbuilding used to dry and store corn). Dr. Nokes tells Reuben that he has a strong back and Mr. Layton will pay him. Reuben is flattered and falls for the trick to get him out of the house and away from Dad's pneumonia.
Remember that Reuben idolizes Davy in part for his strength and competence. Hearing this kind of flattery and getting to do something as physical as take a building down allows Reuben to feel similarly adult and competent. Notice, though, how easily Reuben falls for this; he obviously craves recognition for this kind of adult competence. It shows that he wants to grow up and exhibit these markers of adulthood.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Reuben begins the job of taking down the corncrib in the middle of December. While the corncrib looks ancient, Reuben struggles to make any progress with his crowbar. When he returns home for lunch, Swede offers him a bowl of villing (milk and sugar with dumplings). Reuben isn't impressed and tells the reader this is "sick food."
The recognition of Reuben's strength stopped with Dr. Nokes, as the "sick food" makes Reuben feel like his hard work is unappreciated. Reuben's struggle to actually make progress points to the fact that he's not actually particularly strong or adult.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Swede tells Reuben that Dad is worse, and his lungs are filling up like Reuben's do. Hearing Dad thumping his chest, Reuben goes into Dad's room. Dad asks Reuben if this is what it feels like when Reuben struggles to breathe. He asks Reuben if he'd like to move to New Mexico. Reuben thinks it sounds fantastic, but Swede asks what will happen if Davy returns and they've left Roofing. Reuben tells Swede that Davy would find them, and says that New Mexico is still out West. Reuben loses himself in a daydream about his family riding together in New Mexico. He realizes that he went into Dad's room to help but never asked Dad if he needed anything. He offers Dad a glass of water and then eats his villing, which he finds good.
Here, Reuben experiences a moment of heightened self-awareness that shows he is starting to care for others in a more selfless and adult way. Interestingly, moving to this new way of thinking about others makes Reuben appreciate the "sick food" more and differently. Also, notice here that Swede is unwilling to leave in case Davy returns. She sees staying as a way to demonstrate her loyalty to her brother, even if the high desert of New Mexico would be good for Reuben's lungs and overall health.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
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Back out at the corncrib, Reuben encounters a young boy named Raymond in the corncrib. Raymond is extremely congested and asks Reuben if he can watch the corncrib come down. He sits and talks about all manner of things while Reuben works on the corncrib. Finally, Reuben discovers that he's been struggling because his crowbar is bent incorrectly, and his progress accelerates as he figures out how to use it properly. Raymond asks Reuben if his brother is a murderer.
Remember that Reuben isn't getting the hero's welcome at home that he'd hoped for—he goes home to "sick food." Raymond, as a young child, idolizes Reuben and makes him feel strong and competent. Here, then, Reuben gets to feel adult and admired by those younger than he is. This is similar to how Reuben idolizes Davy, and it suggests that Davy's competence might be questionable.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Reuben says that while the corncrib was the hardest work he'd ever done at that point, he realized soon that Swede's job of caring for Dad was harder. One night, after Reuben returns home, he stands at Dad's bedside and watches him sleep. Dad's breathing is so labored that Reuben thinks of his own scary nights and fearfully shakes Dad awake. Dad asks Reuben to pound his back, and his breathing becomes easier.
Reuben's job of tearing down the corncrib is an activity that benefits only Reuben, while Swede's job of caring for Dad is rooted in family loyalty and responsibility. This realization indicates that Reuben understands that remaining loyal to one's family can be more difficult than simply looking out for oneself.
Themes
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
Reuben finishes tearing down the corncrib a few days later. He wishes that Raymond were there to watch as he piles up the slats and posts. When he gets home, Swede is in a foul mood. She takes Dad his dinner but won't speak to Reuben. Reuben plies her with half a candy cane, and Swede finally motions to their Christmas cards and says that they haven't gotten one from Davy. Reuben wonders out loud if any historical desperados sent Christmas cards, which doesn't sway Swede. Their conversation is interrupted when Mr. Layton knocks on the front door. He refuses to come in, but pays Reuben $25 and two candy bars for his work on the corncrib.
Reuben again wants to feel idolized, as Swede certainly doesn't seem ready to congratulate him on his hard work. Swede's foul mood stems from the fact that she sees Davy as disloyal for not sending a Christmas card. This is indicative of Swede's youth--sending a card could be dangerous for Davy, but she instead fixates on feeling neglected. Notably, too, her knowledge of desperados supports her position, showing how she uses this history to support her own feelings and emotions.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Swede and Reuben spend two days wondering what fantastic things $25 could buy. Reuben wishes he knew what Bethany Orchard wanted for Christmas so he could buy her a present. On December 23, Dad finally gets out of bed. Reuben, overjoyed, runs to help Swede make oatmeal for breakfast. At Swede's request, Reuben searches several places for sugar or syrup, but they have none. They settle on putting wrinkled apples in the oatmeal. When Reuben goes to fetch Dad for breakfast, he enters Dad's room and comes face to face with a man he barely recognizes. Dad isn't wearing a shirt, and looks like a skeleton.
Adjusting for inflation, $25 in 1962 has the same buying power as about $200 in 2017. Remember that this money is something Reuben earned by himself for himself, while Swede performed the difficult (and unpaid) work of family loyalty. However, Reuben the narrator begins to set the tone for this to change through the unsuccessful search for sugar. Essentially, though Reuben feels rich, his family decidedly isn't.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Later that morning, Reuben tells Swede that he'd like to buy a canoe. Swede replies that they're out of food and have no money to buy more. Stepping out of the narrative, Reuben explains that he truly needed this spelled out for him, as needing to spend his hard-earned money on groceries annoyed him for a variety of reasons. Reuben silently fumes as Swede washes dishes, and Swede begins to describe a scene from Little Women in which one character sells her hair to buy a train ticket for another. Reuben realizes with disappointment what has to be done.
Both Reuben and Swede demonstrate impressive maturity for their ages—Swede, at nine years old, is in charge of managing finances and feeding the family, while Reuben has now dabbled in working outside the home. His decision to buy groceries, however, is written as a much greater emotional sacrifice than Swede's childhood.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Reuben lists some of the foodstuffs he and Swede buy. Dad is especially happy with the coffee, and remarks on Reuben's strength as he drinks his cup. Then they hear a knock on the door, and Swede leads a man in a suit with a federal ID into the kitchen. This man says he is Andreeson, a federal investigator tasked with capturing Davy. Andreeson asks Dad to contact him if Davy makes contact, and says that the feds are involved now because Davy likely crossed state lines. As Andreeson says goodbye, Dad tells him that they won't speak again.
When Andreeson appears, the Land family's enemy finally gets a face again. Andreeson represents the rational justice system out to get Davy and put him behind bars, which everyone (Dad included) doesn't want to happen at this point. When Dad comments on Reuben's strength, he's trying to make Reuben feel as though the work he did had worth and is appreciated, even though Reuben can't experience a reward in the form of a canoe.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
That night, Swede tells Reuben how the outlaw Cole Younger was captured after a bank raid. The night before Younger was to go on trial, the sheriff promised Younger that if he could name the killer of one of the bank tellers, he'd ensure Younger's freedom. In the morning, Younger handed the sheriff a paper that said, "be true to your friends." Reuben thinks this is a fantastic display of loyalty, although he feels compelled to mention several other historical figures that performed similar acts of loyalty.
Swede and Reuben evidently place a great deal of importance on loyalty to friends and family. Here, Swede is comparing Dad to Cole Younger, which allows her to idolize her father in a way that ties in neatly with her love of Westerns, her own writing, and her general love for things that seem literary or dramatic.
Themes
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
On Christmas Eve morning, Swede wakes early and begins preparing Christmas dinner, saying she can't wait for actual Christmas. Reuben and Dad spend the day wandering through the house smelling the food smells wafting out of the kitchen. Finally, Swede sets the table and calls them for dinner. Someone knocks at the door, and Dad goes and lets in Mr. DeCuellar and Mrs. DeCuellar, carrying gifts for Swede and Reuben. They also offer Dad the keys to Tin Lurvy's Airstream—Lurvy died unexpectedly, and left the Airstream to Dad in his will. The entire party moves dinner out to the trailer. Reuben asks Dad why he keeps laughing, and Dad answers that he prayed that morning for either Davy to be sent home, or for them to be sent to Davy.
Again, preparing an entire Christmas dinner is a huge responsibility for a nine-year-old. The amount of responsibility that Swede takes on in her family suggests the possibility that she leans so heavily on her writing as a way to still experience childish joys in spite of all her very adult responsibilities. Fiction also provides her the source material to romanticize her duties. The arrival of the Airstream is indicative of the power of prayer, and it further supports the assertion that religion guides every character in the novel.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon