Old West comes alive in Enger novel
If you love epic tales that celebrate the American West; if you treasure novels like Trail of the Lonesome Dove, Edna Ferber’s So Big (Giant) and McCarthy’s Cities on the Plain, you might want to saddle up for Peace Like a River. Everything that quickens your heartbeat is here: manhunts, vicious killers, snowstorms, relentless law men, lovable outlaws, tall tales, all wrapped in a bit of Mark Twain’s “heading for the territories.”
However, there is a significant difference in time and place. We are in Minnesota in the 1960s, a time when the “Old West” was rapidly vanishing.
The narrator of Peace Like a River is 11-year-old Ruben Land, an asthmatic boy who was literally snatched from death by his father who kept shouting “Ruben Land, in the name of the living God, I am telling you to breath.” (Although Ruben did not breathe for over eight minutes, the boy does not show any evidence of brain damage, or, as Ruben ruefully observes, not until “he encountered plane geometry in the 10th grade.
The other family members are Ruben’s younger sister, Swede, who aspires to be a writer and a poet and is well on the way to being both (Ruben is Swede’s biggest fan). Both adore their 16-year-old brother, Davy, who can ride, shoot and has his driver’s license. These three children, along with their luckless father, Jeremiah, suffer all of the disadvantages (and a few advantages) of a motherless household.
Although Jeremiah Land has potential talents, he lacks ambition. As a result, he is content to be the janitor at the local school and spend generous amounts of time hunting and camping. It is his lack of ambition that causes his wife to abandon the family when it becomes evident that she is trapped on a farm (she wants a house in town, of course). Although his children are a bit embarrassed by meeting their father in the hall at school where he sweeps and cleans, Ruben knows a marvelous secret. His father can perform miracles ... or to be more exact, perhaps he is actually the unwitting vehicle through which miracles sometimes occur.
The Land family’s pastoral existence (hunting and camping with friends) ends abruptly when two local delinquents, Israel French and Tommy Basa, corner a local cheerleader in the locker room following a game. When Davy attempts to defend the cheerleader, the incident escalates into acts of mutual vandalism (broken windshields, the front door of the Land home defaced with tar, etc.) and finally into a violent conflict that culminates in a midnight attack on the Land home by the two thugs (armed with ball bats) — an attack in which Davy shoots and kills French and Basa.
When Davy is branded a murderer and arrested, the Land family finds that they are outcasts in their own community. Ruben, Swede and Davy (who believe in the time-honored traditions of the old West), find that their convictions are viewed as anachronisms. However, while Ruben and Swede plot to rescue their brother, Davy escapes, sparking a massive manhunt
At this point, Jeremiah Land receives a fortuitous gift. (Remember those miracles that suddenly occur for no reason?) An old friend dies and leaves Jeremiah an Airstream trailer. Another friend gives him an aging Plymouth. Jeremiah closes down his home, loads his family and sets out. He has no known destination and only says he is “going to find Davy.” It is an incredible journey, filled with nostalgia and tributes to everyone from Dalton Trumbo’s “Spartacus” (Ruben has an action figure of Spartacus that came with a severed hand that can be impaled on Spartacus’ sword) to the man who harbored Butch Cassidy when he returned to the U.S. There is also a first-rate villain who will alter the lives of the Lands. There is a bit of romance, too. In addition to getting Davy back, perhaps Ruben and Swede will finally find a mother.
Suddenly the Old West is resurrected. As Davy flees on borrowed and stolen horses and vehicles, the media is reminded of other escaping outlaws who became our heroes — Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Jesse James, the Youngers and Sam Bass. The media begins (for a short time) to rhapsodize about Davy Land in articles captioned “Ride, Davy, Ride!” Of course, the adventure would not be complete without a relentless federal agent named Martin Andreeson who is close on Davy’s heels. Martin is kind-hearted, dedicated and undeserving of abuse that the inventive Swede heaps on him in her poetry.
Which brings me to most entertaining aspect of Peace Like a River. It is Swede Land, Ruben’s little sister. Throughout this novel, Swede does a running poetic commentary on the action. She adores her brother Davy and she idolizes the wonderful characters that live and breathe in the movies. She reads constantly and her poetry reflects familiar voices: Rudyard Kipling, Robert Service and Robert Lewis Stevenson, for example. Consider the following:
The moon was black as a miner’s lung,
The sky was as black as a shroud,
And deep in a cell that was black as a well,
Two men lay moaning aloud.
And one was Rennie who had robbed a man,
And one was Bert who had killed,
And the gallows outside hadn’t ever been tried
But its mission would soon be fulfilled, lads,
Its mission would soon be fulfilled.
Swede’s poetry echoes the best of “cowboy poetry.” I can hear a bit of “The Shooting of Dan Magrew” in there and the lyrics of The Sons of the Pioneers best songs (“Keep a-moving, Dan/ Don’t you listen to him, Dan!”). It makes me homesick for the Saturday westerns and the voice of Walter Brennan (“When I was a boy and Old Shep was a pup ....”)
How does it end? Does Davy come home? No, but he doesn’t go to prison either. What about that relentless lawman? Well, he catches Davy, but he may wish he didn’t. The showdown comes in Death Valley in the midst of brimstone craters ... And the miracles? Oh, yes, although the last miracle is a heartbreaker. Aww, go on and read it if you want the details.
It is a wonderful book.