Review: Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

peaceriverI’ll admit it: I’m already getting cabin fever.

Winter is the time of year I look forward to. The reading! The blogging! The crafting! When it gets here, I find that as much as I love all of those things, I need a balance in my life. I’m missing sunshine. I’m missing exercise. There are only so many treadmill runs a girl can do.

Luckily, I have had a few really good books to keep me company lately.

One in particular is Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. After Modern Mrs Darcy recommended it again and again and again and again, saying wisely

The jacket description didn’t sound interesting to me, so don’t worry if it doesn’t sound good to you either. – See more at: http://modernmrsdarcy.com/?s=peace+like+a+river#sthash.2oGzgwLq.dpuf

I finally gave in and opened this not-my-usual read. 11 year old boys don’t always make the best narrators when you’re reading as an adult woman. Set in the 1960’s in rural Minnesota and North Dakota, it had very little regional appeal to me. Also, the book echoes (parallels? parodies? uses as metaphor?) classic Westerns. And finally, almost all of the goodreads reviews I read carry on about how this is a great Christian novel – which I don’t object to in the abstract sense, but let’s face it: Christian fiction has a long and glorious history of being really boring.

I opened the book and all of those stereotypes and judgements fell away. Right away, it’s clear that we are dealing with an unreliable narrator. Not the really hardcore kind that is lying to you or crazy (or is he??…)  It’s just that as an 11-year old kid, Reuben has a bad case of hero worship for his dad, who he believes is a modern day prophet and miracle worker, and for his older brother, who he views as a Western-style hero. He views his kid sister Swede as very ordinary and down-to-earth, even though she may be the most extraordinary character in the book.

The reality comes out more slowly, and due to the limited viewpoint, you really have to look for it. For me, that’s part of the magic of this book: on top of the obvious mystery/manhunt plot, there’s also this question of what is really happening all around Reuben. Who is his dad, really? What happened to Swede? Who shot those two teenage boys, and why? In the end, although we have some answers and a few good guesses, we also realize that some questions will never be answered.

In the same way, I think you have to read this book for yourself and see what you get out of it. For those who either loved or hated the Christian theme: that’s a very literal reading where you’re buying into Reuben’s 11-year-old, near-magical viewpoint. And that’s OK, if that’s what works for you. But if you approach the limited narration with a little bit of skepticism, I think the novel you end up reading will be a lot more cynical, and perhaps more realistic, too.

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