The members of the Land family are extremely loyal to one another. Reuben and the reader are led to believe that it's Davy's loyalty to his family and his girlfriend Dolly that leads him to heroically kill Tommy Basca and Israel Finch in the first place. However, as Davy and the rest of the family move westward, the very idea of loyalty—what exactly loyalty means, and who's deserving of it—is tested and questioned.
Initially, loyalty is thought to be Davy's primary motive for killing Tommy and Israel, and he's celebrated in the newspapers for bravely protecting his family against intruders. However, it comes to light at the trial that Davy's intentions might not have been as pure as Reuben and Swede were allowed to believe. They learn that Davy smashed the windows of Israel's car earlier in the evening, essentially inviting the break-in later that night. This raises the question of whether Davy acted solely out of loyalty to his family, or if a part of him actually wanted an excuse to kill Tommy and Israel.
The novel continues to explore the morality of loyalty when Reuben and Davy reconnect in North Dakota. Reuben feels morally bankrupt and describes himself as a "ratfink" when he threatens Davy with telling Jeremiah and Swede about him if Davy doesn't show Reuben where he lives. In this situation, Reuben places conditions on his own loyalty that he finds morally questionable. Reuben struggles to understand his own reasoning behind this, but he eventually attributes the shaky morality of this deal to his own desire to receive a display of loyalty from Davy. Notably, Reuben becomes physically ill and feels increasingly guilty as he endeavors to maintain his loyalty to Davy. This offers the possibility that while exchanges of loyalty like this might be effective, they can exert a high physical and emotional toll.
When Davy reappears in Reuben's life and Reuben begins to understand that Davy isn't necessarily either the glowing hero or the remorseful wrongdoer, Reuben is caught between loyalty to the family's journey West, and loyalty to his brother. Reuben finds it especially difficult to understand his father's decision to cooperate with the federal agent Andreeson. He sees it as a betrayal of Davy, while Jeremiah sees it as the only way to find Davy and keep him as safe as possible. While Reuben initially chooses to place his loyalty in Davy by agreeing to keep Davy's whereabouts a secret, Reuben changes his mind when he begins to suspect that Davy himself has misplaced his loyalty by trusting Jape Waltzer. This turn of events suggests that while family members may pledge loyalty to other people outside the family, they largely do so in an attempt to remain loyal and protect their family members. Neither Jeremiah nor Reuben wants to harm Davy, even when they seemingly betray him; they simply want him and those participating in the search for him to be safe.
Loyalty and Family ThemeTracker
Loyalty and Family 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.
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.
"Well," I said, "he wrote a whole book and it's in the Bible." Even Dad, much as I loved him, didn't have anything in there.
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...
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.