Peace Like a River


Leif Enger

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Peace Like a River Summary

Reuben, the narrator, spends his first twelve minutes of life not breathing, and he nearly dies. When his father (Jeremiah Land) picks up baby Reuben and commands him to breathe in the name of God, Reuben begins to breathe. Reuben says that this was his father's first miracle, and that he believes he was put on the earth to bear witness to his father's miracles.

Reuben is 11 years old and hunting with his family in North Dakota. Dad and Davy, Reuben's older brother, aren't speaking to each other. Out in the field, they spot a lone goose flying, and Davy lets Reuben take the shot. As Reuben guts the goose later, he and his younger sister Swede discuss why Davy is angry. Swede says that two kids in high school with Davy, Tommy Basca and Israel Finch, beat up Davy's girlfriend, Dolly, in the locker room. Dad, who is the school janitor, got to Dolly "in time."

When the Lands return home to Roofing, Minnesota, their front door is covered in tar. Reuben, who has asthma, is having trouble breathing. His Dad boils water and creates a steam tent for him. Meanwhile, Dad tries to explain in broad terms why the door is tarred, but Reuben still does not understand. Several days later, Reuben and Dad attend evening church service. When they return home, they learn that Swede has been kidnapped and then returned by Israel and Tommy. Dad calls the police, but they refuse to do anything.

The next day Tin Lurvy, a traveling salesman, visits the Lands for dinner. Reuben is shocked to see that the small batch of soup Dad made feeds them all multiple helpings, and Reuben deems it a miracle. After midnight that night, Reuben hears the back door open. Footsteps reach Reuben's bedroom door, and he hears Davy tell the intruders to turn on the light. The light comes on and Davy shoots Israel Finch and Tommy Basca.

Davy goes to jail, Reuben and Swede stay home from school, and Dad's boss, the school superintendent Mr. Holgren, makes Dad's job miserable. Mr. DeCuellar, Davy's defense lawyer, visits often to talk to Dad. Swede spends her time writing an epic poem starring a cowboy hero, Sunny Sundown, who is trying to kill the bandit king Valdez. One night, Swede comes into Reuben's room and says she can't kill Valdez. Reuben doesn't understand and fears that Sunny's story won't turn out "right."

Once he returns to school, Reuben witnesses Mr. Holgren fire Dad in front of his entire class. Immediately after Mr. Holgren fires Dad, Dad gives Mr. Holgren a strange slap and Reuben notices that Mr. Holgren's face, usually angry with boiling acne, is suddenly healed. Reuben can barely stand the injustice that Mr. Holgren was healed while Reuben still struggles with asthma.

Davy's trial begins. Reuben quickly realizes that Davy has no chance—the evidence suggests that Davy wanted to murder Tommy and Israel. When Reuben takes the stand to testify, Elvis, the prosecutor, extracts incriminating testimony from him. That night, Swede suggests that they break Davy out of jail, and Reuben agrees. However, since the DeCuellars and Dad are drinking coffee in the living room and blocking the door, Reuben and Swede are unable to sneak out. When Reuben wakes the next morning, though, he learns that Davy has escaped.

The police assemble a posse to hunt for Davy, but they can’t find him. Meanwhile, Dad contracts pneumonia after working outside in the bitter cold. One day, Martin Andreeson, a federal agent tasked with finding Davy, knocks on the door, but Dad indicates that the family won’t help him. On Christmas Eve, the DeCuellars knock on the door and tell Dad that Tin Lurvy died and left Dad his brand new Airstream trailer. Dad tells Reuben he prayed for a way to get to Davy, and this is the answer.

In January, the Lands receive a postcard from August Schultz, a friend from North Dakota, saying that Davy stopped by. Dad sells their possessions to buy food, stocks the Airstream, and he, Reuben, and Swede head for North Dakota. When they arrive, they visit August and his wife, Birdie, who tell the Lands everything they can about Davy. The next morning, the Land family leaves in the Airstream without a map or a destination, hoping to find Davy on faith alone. When they stop in a park for lunch, Swede notices that Andreeson is in the park, as well. At dinner, Mr. Andreeson knocks on the door and tries to reason with Dad, but Dad continues to refuse to help him.

A day later, they stop for gas and the owner of the station, who introduces herself as Roxanna, also offers them beds for the night. It snows overnight. The next evening, Roxanna, looking exceptionally beautiful, takes them on a picnic. She brings them to a lignite field, which is warm in the dead of winter. During the picnic, Andreeson once again approaches and asks Dad for help finding Davy. Dad once again refuses.

The next day, Reuben sees someone on a horse on a hillside, and knows immediately that it’s Davy. Reuben runs to the hill, follows the tracks, and comes upon Davy. Davy pulls Reuben onto his horse and they ride and talk for a while. Reuben asks to see where Davy lives. After initially resisting, Davy agrees to show him later. When Reuben gets back to the house, he discovers that Dad has gone out with Mr. Andreeson. Reuben is angry; he doesn't understand why Dad would decide to cooperate with Andreeson.

That night, Davy picks up Reuben behind the barn and they ride to a valley with a cabin. There Davy introduces Reuben to Mr. Waltzer, a man with apocalyptic ideas who is himself hiding from the law and has taken Davy in to protect him. Mr. Waltzer has his daughter, Sara, to prepare dinner; Sara is silent and doesn't join them for the meal. (Later Rueben learns from Davy that Sara is not actually Waltzer’s daughter, and that Waltzer is in fact raising Sara to become his wife.) During dinner Reuben has trouble breathing and faints. Davy takes him home. The next day, Dad explains that he's going to court Roxanna.

Reuben goes with Davy to the cabin several more times. These nighttime adventures make Reuben's asthma worse, and Dad calls a new doctor who gives Reuben adrenaline. One morning, Reuben goes downstairs to find Mr. Andreeson at the table with Dad. Andreeson believes he's close to Davy and says he'll call with news. Reuben feels he must warn Davy, but that night at the cabin, Mr. Waltzer doesn't seem worried at all. Two days pass without a call from Mr. Andreeson. Dad learns that Mr. Andreeson went out to meet a man who was supposed to lead him to Davy, but Mr. Andreeson never returned to his motel. Reuben, realizing that Waltzer was the man with whom Andreeson must be meeting, tells Dad that Andreeson is in trouble.

The next morning, Reuben rides with a posse, intending to lead them to Mr. Waltzer's cabin. However, Reuben then thinks he shouldn't betray Davy, so he leads the posse the wrong way. When the posse descends a steep hill, one of the horses falls and seriously injures its rider. Reuben sits with the injured rider while the officers do eventually go and find the cabin. Inside, they find only Andreeson's hat.

Reuben and his family return to Roofing with Roxanna at the end of February, and Dad and Roxanna marry a week later. They move to a farm. Reuben's asthma continues to worsen. One day in June, a car pulls up, and Davy and Sara get out—Davy had decided it was unacceptable for Waltzer to marry Sara, and so he helped her escape. Now he asks if Sara can stay. Davy, however, knows he himself can’t stay because of his past. In the morning, the family goes outside to see Davy off. But Mr. Waltzer is sitting by the granary and shoots Dad and Reuben.

Reuben wakes up in the "old country"—heaven. He's uninjured and can breathe. He walks through a meadow and an orchard, where he meets Dad. They run together to a cliff where they can see a great city. Dad tells Reuben to take care of Swede. Reuben then watches Dad head towards the city.

Years later, the Lands doctor, Dr. Nokes tells Reuben that Dad shouldn't have died from his wound, while Reuben certainly should have died. Reuben understands that, when he met Dad in heaven, Dad sacrificed himself so that Reuben could live. Reuben continues: after Dad's death, Roxanna became their rock. Swede became a writer, Mr. Waltzer was never caught, and Mr. Andreeson never reappeared. Reuben goes yearly to a Canadian hunting town where, on some years, Davy joins him. Reuben tells Davy about what happened in Heaven, but Davy doesn't know what to make of it. Reuben says that he himself sometimes doubts what happened, but his family with Sara—whom Reuben has married—bolsters his faith. He tells the reader to "make of it what you will."