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.
Fiction, Reality, and the American West ThemeTracker
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Quotes in Peace Like a River
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.
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?
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.)
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?"
"Just because I write it doesn't mean it really happened."
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.
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?
"She wasn't his wife!" Swede flared. Past tense, you notice—history, even the fictive kind, being beyond our influence.
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?
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
Is there a single person on whom I can press belief?
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.