Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River Late in the Night When the Fires Are Out Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
On the day of the trial, the DeCuellars insist that the Lands have breakfast at their house. Afterwards, they head to the courthouse, where they're not allowed to visit Davy. Reuben and Swede pace the hallway until someone offers them a private office where they can wait. Mr. DeCuellar enters and asks Swede who in her family is the best at the game War at Sea. Upon realizing that the Lands have never played, Mr. DeCuellar instructs Swede and Reuben in the game and the two play until the trial commences at noon.
Now that they're finally confronted with the reality of a court of law, Swede and Reuben quickly find that courts aren't exciting and justice isn't immediate. Instead, being at court means waiting patiently and playing a childish game to stay amused. This reinforces Swede and Reuben's youth and demonstrates how kind Mr. DeCuellar is to the Land family.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
Reuben thinks that the judge looks like a vain man, while Davy looks short and skinny. Reuben only remembers the first name of the prosecutor, Elvis, who begins the formalities. His speech renders Davy as a coldhearted murderer, while Mr. DeCuellar's response, though sound in Reuben's opinion, doesn't seem to impress the jury. Reuben watches as the trial goes downhill—he learns that Davy smashed the windows of Israel Finch's car on the night of the murder. Dad and Mr. DeCuellar don't look surprised. Reuben realizes that Davy had essentially given Israel and Tommy an invitation.
Reuben continues to find that court isn't what he thought it was going to be. The judge doesn't look like Reuben thinks a judge should, and Davy's case is apparently not the simple matter of right versus wrong that Reuben and Swede were allowed to believe it was. Davy's actions suggest that there was more to his conflict with Tommy and Israel than previously thought. His motive also becomes muddy as it looks like he wanted the opportunity to kill.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
As the trial continues, Reuben understands that Davy has no chance. Even Dolly's testimony seems to have little effect on the jury. Reuben, terrified at having to testify, asks Swede to help him rewrite his narrative to make Davy look better, but Mr. DeCuellar insists that Reuben just tell the truth when he testifies the next day.
Reuben and Swede want to do what they've seen the papers do and rewrite the narrative to put Davy in a better light. Mr. DeCuellar's counsel to not rewrite Reuben's testimony suggests that fiction like that has no place in the rational courtroom.
Themes
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
That night, Reuben and Swede sleep in sleeping bags in the DeCuellars’ study. Swede states that they're going to lose, and says they need to break Davy out of jail. Swede, pacing, comes up with a childish scheme to bribe the guard with cookies. Reuben tells her to grow up, and Swede turns to the books lining the walls. She returns to bed with a volume of poetry and reads several poems out loud. Swede insists that one chilling poem is certainly a sign that means they need to break Davy out of jail.
Swede's childish plan makes her look especially young, but it also shows how loyal she is to Davy. She truly believes that Davy doesn't deserve to suffer the consequences of his actions. She adheres to Davy's personal code of honor, while Reuben fears the consequences too much to follow her in this reasoning. He'd rather place his faith in the rationality of the court.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
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Reuben takes the stand the following afternoon. Elvis approaches, tries to chat patronizingly with Reuben, and then moves into more pressing questions. Reuben says that as his time on the stand progressed, he began to feel dangerously confident. Elvis walks Reuben through the events of the night of Swede's abduction, and Reuben finally repeats Davy's phrase about putting a biting dog down. Elvis looks pleased and extracts a testimony that makes Davy look like a coldhearted killer. Mr. DeCuellar looks alarmed.
Reuben has to face consequences of his own here when his overconfidence opens up a line of questioning from which he can't recover. Through this, he becomes an instrumental figure in what will surely be Davy's conviction. Reuben not only has to suffer guilt, but the consequences of disappointing Mr. DeCuellar, Davy, and Swede.
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, Reuben agrees to break Davy out of jail. Swede and Reuben make childish plans, and Reuben explains to the reader why he mentioned Davy's comment about putting the dog down during his testimony. He says that he regrets how he said it, not that he was honest. Reuben says that humility came to him far too late.
Reuben's guilt leads him to a childish attempt to remedy what happened. Through this, he tries to embody Davy and create his own code of personal honor and justice, which stands in opposition to that of the court and the law.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
After Reuben and Swede go to bed, they arm themselves with stolen steak knives tucked into their belts. Reuben cuts his hands tucking his shirt in. The adults, however, drink their evening coffee in the living room and block the door. Swede and Reuben can come up with no other way to sneak out, and eventually lie down to wait for the adults to go to bed. Reuben wakes up when he rolls onto one of the knives, and pulls Swede's knives from her belt. Reuben wakes before dawn to find Dad in between him and Swede, trying to rouse them. Davy has broken out of jail.
The details in this passage work to highlight Reuben and Swede's youth and inexperience—Reuben can't handle even a steak knife without cutting himself, and they fail at waiting up long enough to sneak out. However, Reuben makes it clear that he's relieved to not have to do something to undermine the established law, since he doesn't try to wake Swede and instead lets her sleep.
Themes
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon