Peace Like a River focuses intently on the idea that all actions, thoughts, and beliefs (noble or otherwise) have consequences. Reuben and Swede watch this play out through Davy's trial and subsequent escape, and Reuben experiences the consequences of his own actions in North Dakota after he reconnects with Davy. Yet justice—the notion that such consequences will be fair—doesn't always mean the same thing to different people, and much of Reuben's growing up happens as he comes to this realization.
While the novel borrows a number of tropes and motifs from Western literature and movies, the most important idea that the novel borrows from Westerns is pitting personal honor, or "frontier justice," against organized and rational systems of justice like courtrooms and sheriffs. These different schools of thought represent a conflict between valuing individuals versus valuing systems that may or may not value individuals in the same way. Davy's own personal honor leads him to murder Tommy Basca and Israel Finch, but the legal system he's then forced to contend with considers this act to have been wrong. Interestingly, though Davy physically escapes from jail, he never truly escapes the legal system, since he spends the rest of his life on the run. This suggests that while revenge and frontier justice might be romantic and righteous in theory, in reality there are harsh consequences for taking justice into one's own hands; namely, exile from the community that the law is supposed to protect in the first place.
The novel is critical of Westerns and the ideals of justice and consequences they promote in a number of ways. Davy's fate shows that frontier justice is an ineffective tool in modern society if one wishes to remain a part of that society; Swede's insistence on engaging with the search for Davy as though it's a Western blinds her to the possibility that Davy might not be safe or righteous; and Reuben's very Western experience hunting for Davy on horseback with a posse of law enforcement officers is dramatic, but ultimately unsatisfying. As these experiences play out, Reuben suggests that it's not simply ineffective but wholly impossible to simplify justice to "white hat" versus "black hat." While Swede remains fixated on this trope, Reuben finds himself stuck in moral ambiguity. Reuben eventually comes to realize that, while he's still entirely on Davy's side, what Davy did wasn't right or just. In this way, Reuben's experience in the real West leads him to the understanding that what fictional Westerns present as just and correct doesn't always hold true in the real world, Western or otherwise. Further, it's left up to the reader to decide who, if anyone, has received justice, and exactly which brand of justice that might have been.
Justice and Consequences ThemeTracker
Justice and Consequences 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?
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.
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.
"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.
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?
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.
I watched his face and his futile, suety hands, and for the first time a question nipped at me: Was it possible that real loss had occurred at the death of Israel Finch? That real grief had been felt?
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?
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.
"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."
"Because I'm the dad. I have to heed the Lord's instructions."
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.
"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.