Peace Like a River (2001) by Leif Enger is a novel that was chosen for the "One Book, One Denver" program a couple of years ago. I've been trying to catch up on previous years' choices, and now I only have one more to go. So far I haven't been disappointed with these books, and Peace Like a River is an interesting and well-told story. However, an intense focus on Christian religion somewhat lessened my appreciation.
Reuben Land is an eleven-year-old boy living in the frigid, winter land of Minnesota with his close-knit family that includes: his precocious younger sister Swede, his sixteen-year-old brother Davy, and his father Jeremiah Land. Swede is a smart and gifted writer with a passion for westerns; she turns the adventures of their lives into stormy, epic poems full of heroes and villains. Davy is the kind of independent and self-reliant teenager who is used to taking care of things around the farm, and Reuben's father Jeremiah held the family together after Reuben's mother left them.
Two ne'er-do-wells in the town of Roofing are threatening the Land family, and when they break into the old farmhouse one night, Davy Land kills them both with his shotgun. When Davy runs away, Reuben, his father, and Swede take off in an effort to find him. Circumstances make Davy's shooting more complicated than a clear case of self-defense, so the police and the FBI are after Davy as well. Young Reuben sees the actions of his brother through the loyal eyes of a child and his telling of the story--even from an older perspective--is cloaked with innocence.
But Davy's main stated purpose in telling his story is to "witness" his father's miracles. The first miracle occurs on Reuben's birth when his father saves his life by ordering him to breathe, and Reuben's asthmatic and withered lungs somehow respond. Other miracles occur throughout their trip, including a gas tank that doesn't go empty and police unable to spot them.
The novel is very much a retelling of the story of Jesus. Religion is crammed into the characters' lives and plays a major part in the book. I felt at times the way I did when I saw those movies that I can't remember the name of right now (Love's Labor or some such) starring Katherine Heigle. Although I really liked some of the characters, and the relationship between Swede and her brother Reuben was sweet, realistic, and fun, the magical elements often felt like a forced fairy tale. The same problems I have with believing in a personal God made this book less meaningful and more frustrating. I couldn't help but wonder why God would bother about one, young boy in the United States when people are starving and dying all over the world. If God can really perform miracles, he could do much better than putting gas in a car or imprinting the face of Jesus on some toast. I can imagine that sincere Christians could find this book incredibly moving and inspiring. I, on the other hand, appreciate the writing, but the religious elements kept me at a distance.