Peace Like a River


Leif Enger

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Justice and Consequences Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Youth vs. Adulthood Theme Icon
Religion Theme Icon
Fiction, Reality, and the American West Theme Icon
Loyalty and Family Theme Icon
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Peace Like a River, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Justice and Consequences Theme Icon

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.

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Justice and Consequences Quotes in Peace Like a River

Below you will find the important quotes in Peace Like a River related to the theme of Justice and Consequences.
His Separate Shadow Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Davy Land, Tommy Basca
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
Your Toughened Heart Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land, Davy Land
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:
When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land, Tommy Basca
Page Number: 71
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Israel Finch, Superintendent Chester Holgren
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:
Late in the Night When the Fires Are Out Quotes

"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.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land (speaker), Davy Land, Mrs. DeCuellar
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:
A Boy on a Horse Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Swede Land, Davy Land
Page Number: 95
Explanation and Analysis:
The Substance of Things Hoped For Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad)
Page Number: 131
Explanation and Analysis:

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?

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Israel Finch, Mr. Finch
Page Number: 132
Explanation and Analysis:
At War with This Whole World Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Swede Land, Davy Land
Related Symbols: Valdez
Page Number: 152
Explanation and Analysis:
The Throbbing Heart of News Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Davy Land, Israel Finch, Mr. Finch
Page Number: 211
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad), Roxanna Crawley, Martin Andreeson
Page Number: 217
Explanation and Analysis:
Winning Her Hand Quotes

"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."
"How come?"
"Because I'm the dad. I have to heed the Lord's instructions."

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Jeremiah Land (Dad) (speaker), Martin Andreeson
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

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.

Related Characters: Reuben Land (speaker), Davy Land
Page Number: 248
Explanation and Analysis:
The Red Farm Quotes

"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.

Related Characters: Davy Land (speaker), Reuben Land, Jeremiah Land (Dad), Swede Land
Page Number: 295
Explanation and Analysis: