3/31/2008

:: peace like a river/pages 1-18 ::

[drinking: rishi vanilla black tea. Photo by me.]

OK, I'm already in love with this book. Do y'all share my initial enthusiasm? With only two chapters under my belt, this story is a page-turner. Many novels take their sweet time building up to a major event, but in the first chapter of Peace Like a River, we have a dying newborn and his father, Jeremiah, pacing outside, praying. Suddenly, Jeremiah runs inside to command his ashen child, "Reuben Land, in the name of the living God, I am telling you to breathe." Reuben obeyed. My eyes bugged open.

Not only that, but at the end of the second chapter, another significant miracle occurs. When Jeremiah Land walked on air (while again praying), at that precise moment in my reading, the light bulb in a nearby lamp burnt out. I gasped. Leif Enger's writing created such a vivid picture that I was immersed. I could see the moonlight (no matter the sunlight in Houston), hear Jeremiah's footsteps on the flatbed, then "his feet noiseless, hitting nothing." A miracle occurred right in front of my eyes, just as plain as day, without any flowery prose.

You should know that most days I fully expect to see miracles. I am that idealistic, though in our society, miracles don't generally occur, or at least no one talks much about the supernatural. They're often scoffed if they do. So, as I read about Jeremiah's air-walking while my light bulb eerily snuffed itself out, I gasped with both joy and fear. For as young Reuben Land said, "A miracle contradicts the will of the earth." I long for wonder, but I'm sure accustomed to this earth, aren't you?

This brings me to a few paragraphs which grabbed hold of my attention:

"Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it’s been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week - a miracle, people say, as if they’ve been educated from greeting cards. I’m sorry, but nope. Such things are worth our notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strength of the word.

Real miracles bother people, like strange sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule all we good citizens take comfort in. Lazarus obeying orders and climbing up out of the grave - now there's a miracle, and you can bet it upset a lot of folks who were standing around at the time. When a person dies, the earth is generally unwilling to cough him back up. A miracle contradicts the will of the earth.

My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: People fear miracles because they fear being changed - though ignoring them will change you also. Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here's what I saw. Here's how it went. Make of it what you will
."
[page 3]

Obviously we're reading fiction, but I took these paragraphs to heart, nodding up and down. And clearly, right away, there seems to be an assumption of the miraculous. It's a big theme. Do you believe in miracles? If not, did the author catch you off guard; convince you at all with the above quotes or miracles?

I also love Enger's writing style. His prose is often sparse, yet poetic. I admire how he can paint so much with very few words. I jotted down lines such as:

"I was gray and beginning to cool. A little clay boy is what I was."
[page 2]

".... let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword."
[page 4]

"Davy was sixteen then, a man as far as I was concerned, with a driver's license and a knockout four-inch scar down his right forearm and Dad's own iron in his spine."
[pages 5-6]

"The sky spat ice and water."
[page 6]

"We hunted again that afternoon, under skies so cold frost paisleyed the gun barrels."
[page 11]

This style goes along perfectly with a story combining stark realities and glimpses of the supernatural. Very quickly, ominous foreshadowing and tension appear (a nagging sense of dread to me), yet also the beauty of prayer, miracles, and the possibility of what the characters will do.

And Leif Enger has written very intriguing characters. Jeremiah Land is a janitor, most likely overlooked by many, but he is intensely faithful and performs miracles. Reuben is growing up, observing everything, witty, vulnerable, and older than his years at times. I have my eye on him because he was allowed to live for a quite a purpose, I'm sure. Swede is a young girl, but drawn to typically un-ladylike things: hunting, gutting birds, playing with a dead goose's feet, and reading about heresy. Davy is odd to me. I can't put my finger on it in two chapters, but he seems dangerous or something, not quite right. I have my eye on him, too. What is your perception of these characters?

I could easily write more - I have so many thoughts - but I'll stop here for now. My several thoughts are rather jumbled today as I battle health issues, so please bear with me. This is my first book discussion to take part of, and thank God it's not all up to me! Along with answering my questions, I'd love to hear about anything else you noticed, loved, or disliked. Even if you disagree with my opinions, share that, too. I expect to feel healthier each following week, and likewise, I expect for this blog to smooth out into a wonderful discussion.

Comment away.

10 comments:

Libby said...

I am really enjoying the book and have to hold back not to get too far ahead!
Yes, I believe in miracles though am so accustomed to the earth.
I had written down many of the quotes you listed. One of my favorites that you did not quote was" I believe I was preserved, through those 12 airless minutes,in order to be a witness,and as a witness, let me say that a miracle is no cute thing but more like the swing of a sword". and "we and the world,my children,will always be at war. retreat is impossible. Arm yourselves"
I loved the humor in this line".. the doctor turned out wrong about the brain damage. I'm happy to say none surfaced until I entered tenth grad and signed up for Plane Geometry"! and "Swede and I rarely quarreled, for I never held opinions in those days" ! Funny stuff.
I loved that the father's faith is as real and like breathing for him.
I like the authors writing style too - the 'down home' feel.
It's funny how I had never even heard of this book but because of seeing your Shelfari bookshelf I could trust your choice of books!
I like his word pictures too and the characters. I like how the Dad is just an ordinary guy-as you said overlooked probably- yet extraordinary in his faith. Contented ,at rest.
I am looking forward to reading the rest,

Robin said...

You have nailed so many things in your post - so many of the same things I feel about this book!
The miracles that take place in this book are so simple yet so wonderful. It makes me want to be more careful to notice the miraculous in everyday life.

The first time I read this book (last spring) it brought tears to my eyes so many times. The 2nd time I read it (a few months ago) I got choked up as soon as I read the first page. Oh my heavens! I love the way Enger writes with such simplicity that pierces to your very center.
The phrase "make of it what you will" will come up more throughout the book....and it brings me to Reuben's character and his role as narrator. You can tell how he combines a child's perspective and 11-year-old boy's attitude with some adult wisdom. And Swede, I can't get enough of her, I think she is marvelous.

One more thing - I love the dedication page...I had doubts about liking the book when I first picked it up (badlands? trailors?) but as soon as I read the dedication I knew it was meant to be..."To Robin" :)...and then the little verse of cowboy poetry, which will also play a role throughout the book.

Since I have read it twice before and am in the middle of other books right now, I'm not actually reading along with you, but I will definitely keep trying to throw in my 2 cents with what I remember as you go along. I can't wait for you to read more!

kate ortiz said...

i'm with you, jenni. i often feel a little impatient when it comes to "getting into" a novel. but not with this one. a book where you are immediately connecting with characters and asking questions is often a good one.

i'm curious if there will be any insight into their names - reuben? jeremiah? land? i'm thinking they are significant name choices, particularly jeremiah.

i had just been thinking about miracles, knowing nothing about the book, when i began the first chapter. i picked the book up for the first time after putting asher down for the night. as i was looking at him i was remembering something my pastor said right before i had asher. he was talking about the births of his children and said, "i know childbirth is not a miracle, but when you are right there, it almost seems like it is."

i can't tell you, though, how many times people say a child being born is a miracle, especially in my recent conversations. birth is beautiful, but as reuben said, "a miracle contradicts the will of the earth." it is interesting that the birth was not mentioned as a miracle here but the baby moving from clay to life.

Andrea said...

I was delighted to find my copy already on hold yesterday at the library. I thought it would be at least a few more days.

I love everyone's comments so far. I'm definitely into the book already, really hooked from the very first. I'm enjoying how it certainly has religious themes, but it's not feeling sappy or forced. There's the sense of danger ahead, but also wonder and amazement.

My favorite quote so far "Nope, not out loud. But He made me run, Reuben. I guess I figured it out on the way." Isn't that how God often works in our lives - by sending us running in the right direction, but it's only later that we find out why? Oh, and I like seeing the word "nope" in print. :-)

And the third miracle really caught my attention. "Dad paced over the edge.
And did not fall."
Something about that - going "over the edge" but not falling.

Crystal said...

I already love the book too and I've only had it in my possession for 3 hours and spent 20 mins. reading two chapters. This is one of my favorite styles of writing, almost a little like Nicholas Sparks. It is great to meet the central characters right off the bat and be introduced to some conflict too.

I agree that Davy is going to cause some trouble or be in trouble of some kind. There is also a lot left for us to learn about their mother, dead I presume, and the life of a single father.

As a person that loves names, I can't wait to see if Swede has some significance. Is it her given name or just a nickname, like "Natty".

I loved the miracle passage. It is so true. "...spring generally..." is referred to as a miracle all the time here in Illinois where winter tends to hang on well into April. But his definition of a miracle as "contradicting the will of earth" is right on the money. It isn't a miracle that the seasons turn just as God set them in motion. It is not a miracle when babies are born just the way God intended them to be. It is a miracle that we recognize these things as gifts from God and thank him for them, because "the will of earth" (if you take it to mean human nature)is to credit ourselves or modern science or global warming with these events.

Anyway, can't wait to read and discuss more.

P.S. I'm glad they hunted and gutted a goose. As a hunter's daughter and wife I get tired of pc authors that fear harming animals even in writing. I eat deer and I'm proud of it! Ha Ha Ha

Crystal said...

Forgot to tell you that I love the tea information. I'm a teaholic myself. I can't stand coffee unless it is combined with a lot of chocolate. Keep the tea references coming.

Chrisitna Z said...

Ok...I'm not going to hide the truth...I finished the whole book...I couldn't put it down. This reminds me of 7th grade when I did the same thing and I GOT IN TROUBLE because we were supposed to foreshadow. I stink at foreshadowing. I never see things coming in books or movies and I like it that way. I like to be surprised.

Back to the first 2 chapters. I agree with the rest of you...I am captivated by his style of writing and by all the characters. I'm especially in awe of Dad, Jeremiah Land and his faith and humility!

Can't wait for the rest of the discussion!

jenni said...

Libby - that geometry quote cracked me up, too. I can relate a bit. I'm smart, but geometry was hell for me.

Robin - "I love the way Enger writes with such simplicity that pierces to your very center." Yes, that's it. I love Reuben's narration. And, I did notice this book is dedicated to "you" ....

Kate - I'm curious about their names, too. A birth is a glorious thing, but you are correct. My Mom's doctor told her that my brother would be a lifeless vegetable, but he was indeed not. So, his birth was hard and seemingly a miracle, but his health was/is the miracle. Interesting.

Andrea - I'm with you. I think it takes a gifted writer to include religion, but the book not be sappy. I also think we need to observe the upcoming miracles carefully ....

Crystal - I'm glad you brought up their mother. I'm assuming she died from something Reuben said, but I'm interested to hear more about her. I'm glad you're enjoying the tea references!

Christina - You are our fastest reader yet! I don't have any gold stars, sorry.
:)

Megan said...

Well, I'm coming in on this late. I was going to mention some of the quotes you all have already mentioned, so I won't now. I think the only other one I really enjoyed that I don't think was brought up yet was when Davy shares the sketch of what happened to Dolly with Reuben and tells him about the threats on the family and he writes, "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."

I don't know why I like that so much, other than I can totally remember being a kid, sitting in my front yard and fully expecting a Russian blimp (???) to come floating over my house and drop a bomb down on it. I have no idea why this particular image is trapped in my head, but it is, so when he says that up to that point the only enemy he knew of was Russia, I totally got that.

jenni said...

Yay! Megan is finally "here." Thanks for reminding me of that line. I really liked it as well. I think it perfectly conveys that pit-in-your-stomach feeling of what an enemy is, what evil is, and that particular sense of dread. Also, the way the sentence is written really clues you in to a child's perspective - a child about to grow up very fast.