At eleven years old, Reuben exists somewhere between childhood and adulthood. He still possesses a childish understanding of the world of adults, but he recognizes the vast differences in maturity between himself and his younger, sister, Swede, as well as between himself and his older brother, Davy. Reuben fixates on the differences between himself and Davy in particular, and these comparisons influence how Reuben conceptualizes what it means to be grown up.
For Reuben and Swede, Davy represents the pinnacle of adulthood. Davy possesses a driver's license, drinks coffee with the adults, and doesn't participate in Reuben and Swede's imaginative games. He's smart, kind, and seems extremely knowledgeable about everything. Reuben begins his own coming of age process in the first pages of the book while goose hunting with his family, when Davy offers Reuben his shotgun to shoot the target goose, and surprisingly, Reuben hits it. Swede suggests later that night that Reuben is "almost like Davy" now that he's shot a goose. This shows that, according to Swede, adulthood is defined primarily by physical ability and an unwillingness to behave like a child.
As the novel progresses, however, Reuben is confronted with the possibility that being an adult doesn't simply mean possessing a driver's license, shooting geese, and staying up late drinking coffee. Rather, growing up and becoming an adult is about developing a more nuanced perspective regarding abstract concepts like justice and loyalty and what they mean. Much of Reuben's emotional growth happens as he struggles with his father's relationship with Martin Andreeson, the federal agent tasked with finding Davy. Initially, Andreeson makes a convenient "bad guy" figure for the entire Land family, as his goal is certainly to unjustly put Davy behind bars. Reuben and Swede in particular cling to the idea of Andreeson as an evil villain, demonstrating a very black and white view of the situation. As time goes on, however, Jeremiah begins to cooperate with Andreeson. This shakes Reuben's understanding of what's right, what's wrong, and what side is even the "good" side. Reuben's final emotional growing up happens when Andreeson goes missing, and Reuben finds that his feelings towards "the fed" have evolved: while he still finds it hard to stomach that Andreeson wants to put Davy behind bars, he finds the idea that Jape Waltzer may have murdered Andreeson even more horrendous. While Reuben feels immense guilt ratting out Davy, he finds his conscience is clearer when he shifts to value Andreeson's life over Davy's freedom. This suggests that growing up involves allowing one's perception of right and wrong to change as more evidence presents itself for consideration. This, notably, is something that only Reuben does over the course of the novel. While it's indicated that Swede eventually makes some of these connections in adulthood, in the book she remains a "kid sister" physically and emotionally, while Reuben advances and begins to grow up.
Because an adult version of Reuben narrates the novel, the reader is granted adult insight into events that were initially viewed by a child. This combination of perspectives allows the reader to understand what Reuben himself eventually learned: that while children think adulthood is simple and adults are all-knowing, actually being an adult means coming to terms with the fact that life isn't black and white. True adulthood entails being comfortable with shades of gray and, often, no single definition of what's right or wrong.
Youth vs. Adulthood ThemeTracker
Youth vs. Adulthood 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?
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?
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.
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.
"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."
"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.