Reuben Land is an eleven-year-old asthmatic boy with a loving family. His younger sister, Swede, is an aspiring writer, his older brother Davy a passionate man and an accomplished game hunter, his dad…a man of miracles. But when the town bullies begin a feud between themselves and the Land family, the war is taken too far and Davy sentences himself to the life of an outlaw. With Davy gone, the Land family must find a way to recover, and Reuben and Swede are determined to find their older brother, who’s escaped to the Dakota Badlands.
This book was required reading for my Advanced Creative Writing class because of its masterful use of description and word choice. I had my doubts before picking up this book, but before I knew it, the humorous and literary writing style of Leif Enger had kidnapped me into his world of outlaws, road trips, and of course the Dakota Badlands. Its setting I particularly enjoyed because of a family road trip we took ourselves through the Badlands a couple years ago, so that’s always a plus.
Enger does a masterful job at weaving his words into an emotional journey for Reuben. With just a few short sentences, the reader will either fall in love with a character, or learn to loath him. Several characters in particular appear on scene and before they even step across the Land’s front door threshold, you’re already despising their very essence. One character comes to mind, as I remember him inviting himself over and thoughtlessly helping himself to the household’s food supply. Although it was Swede’s ninth birthday, she found herself obligated to cater to the obnoxious businessman instead of spending the evening with her family. #rude. Readers can almost taste Swede’s indignance as it oozes from the pages.
Another point I think Enger tackled quite well was the relationship between Reuben and his older brother and outlaw, Davy. As an upper teenager, to Reuben, the boy is beyond perfect, despite his reasons for turning outlaw. To Reuben and Swede, this dramatic adventure their brother has taken part of is just like the stories of cowboys and indians they love to read and/or write together. Reuben spends the entire book struggling over his opinion of his older brother as the fickle public eye sways back and forth with their favor. Enger manages to create a central tension in Reuben that resonates with the reader: we want them to find Davy, we want everything to work out. We ache to see that brother-brother reunion that we expect to get by the end of the book. Enger definitely had me fangirling pretty hardcore over this part of the plot. All the emotions are there. All the description is beautiful.
With the exception of a few unrealistic elements (matters of self defense, breaking and entering, ages not matching up with personalities, etc), the main problem with this book is the climax. Ask anyone who’s read this book, and you’ll probably get the same answer: loved the book until the end. I’m not saying whether the book ends “happy” or not–that’s not the issue. The issue was how the novel as a whole failed to come good on all its promises. Enger had several strong themes and subplots working for him, but only a handful were tied up at the end, which left me feeling somewhat cheated.
It was almost as if the author got bored at the very end and hastily wrapped up the plot with a decently climatic ending and a hurried summary chapter. Characters changed abruptly at the end without reason. For example, one character in particular was introduced as loyal and willing to defend loved ones, but by the end of the book that same character didn’t pull through when the others needed him the most.
Another issue was its spiritual message. While Enger very clearly wrote this novel to be a Christian fiction, I felt as if the spiritual message of “believe in miracles” wasn’t backed up in a meaningful way. Right at the beginning of the story, it’s established that Reuben’s dad is so connected to God that he actually as the ability to perform miracles. While this plot point certainly had potential, the reason for these miracles is only partially explained. Reuben believes in God, and at one point cries out to Him, but it feels as if this intended spiritual journey never fully comes to bloom.
As I look back on the novel as a whole, my suspicion is that Leif Enger didn’t write an outline, but instead wrote wherever and however his Muse led him. In an interview with the author, he said he “didn’t think about the book commercially until [he] was over half done and [he] realized the book was going to have an end.” It made me suspect that the narrative was more for a personal enjoyment than a carefully-crafted story. Based off the rest of the interview, that seems to be the case, which resulted in loose ends and themes that never got fully developed.
As far as the writing craft itself goes, however, the book is a masterpiece. Every word is thought through carefully and nearly every character affects your emotions one way or another. After reading the novel, I was inspired to take up his writing style and attempt to conform my own story to Enger’s voice, but unfortunately my vocabulary severely lacks in comparison to the author’s wonderful word bank.
Not to mention, the book has a little bit of everything: crime, adventure, western, romance…. It’s truly impressive how the author has the ability to combine many of the genres we love into one beautifully written work.
Things to Watch Out For:
Sex/Romance: A couple is divorced and the man dates and eventually marries another woman. A fictional character in a collection of poetry kisses a woman that’s not his wife and one of the characters takes offense. A female character is attacked by two boys in the women’s locker room, but is rescued. A man wants to marry his adopted daughter.
Violence: Several characters are killed with moderate description, including several murders. Both men and boys are shot and killed. A boy struggles with asthma and occasionally has some health scares.
Drugs: A teenaged boy smokes.
Other: A man can do miracles apparently on a whim, but these miracles usually don’t do anything to point the characters affected to God or have any deep spiritual meaning.
PS: If one reaches the end of the novel and finds himself wanting more answers to his questions, I’ve come up with a “How It Should Have Ended” version of that missing chapter every Peace Like a River reader is looking for. Maybe I’ll write it down as another post here soon.