Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Leif Enger's "Peace Like a River"

I read James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer in January of 1988. I remember the date, more than 21 years later, because I was doing the 2 a.m. feedings with the one-month-old while reading the book for a class. Baby in the left arm, bottle held by left hand; book in the right hand; toothpicks trying to hold the eyes open.

The class was called "The West in the American Imagination," and it was my final course in a master's program. The idea of the course was to study how the West (the American West, not Western civilization) and the idea of the West had been viewed and developed in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Cooper book was the first in the syllabus, and would be followed by Owen Wister, Mark Twain and even Norman Mailer, among many others (lots of reading that semester). Not coincidentally, the St. Louis Art Museum had a major exhibit of Frederic Remington's sculptures and paintings -- the exhibit had inspired the creation of the course.

Highlight of the course for me was Twain's Roughing It, the humorous account of life in the Nevada Territory in the 1860s. Lowlight was the subject of my paper for the course -- The Journals of Zebulon M. Pike, of Pike's Peak fame. The journals seemed to be mostly about Pike being surprised at how cold it gets in winter in Minnesota and being captured as a spy by the Spanish in Colorado and taken back to Mexico before he did any real spying.

All of this came back to me in sharp detail while reading Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. Published in 2000, the novel received a lot of well-deserved acclaim and best-seller status. It's the story of the Land family, and especially Reuben Land, the 11-year-old asthmatic middle child and the story narrator. It's 1962-63 in western Minnesota, and the oldest child, 16-year-old Davy, has killed two bullies who'd been tormenting the family. And killed them in what turns out to be a planned, calculated way. He goes on trial, but before a verdict can be rendered, Davy escapes from jail. The family -- the father, Jeremiah, Reuben, and the 9-year-old daughter, Swede, eventually go after him.

Jeremiah ultimately becomes the counterpoint to his son Davy. Jeremiah Land is something of a prophet, like his biblical namesake. He labors in prayer over his King James Bible. He performs occasional miracles, like willing life into a dead Reuben at birth and, once, walking on air. Jeremiah will wrestle with God about Davy's fate, and God will win.

It's a coming-of-age story, but it took me a while to realize that Peace Like a River aims for something more than that. My clue was Davy's affectionate name for Reuben -- Natty Bumppo, yep, the main character in The Deerslayer.

That's what set me to reading the book more closely and see that Enger had produced not only a coming-of-age story, but also a western, and a commentary on westerns. Nine-year-old Swede is even a writer of western stories and poems (and they're mightily impressive for the work of a 9-year-old, even for 1962). A large part of the story is set in the North Dakota Badlands, where all the old outlaws hung out at one time or another. And there's enough discussion about Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid that even I could see some rather obvious parallels to Davy and the people he ends up hiding with.

So this novel leaves me with something of a dilemma. Is it a good story, or is it something of a postmodern deconstruction of the western? Or is it both? Or something else entirely? My conclusion is that I don't know, but the fact I still have these questions makes me wonder if it ultimately succeeds at any of these things, or if I'm just not smart enough to figure it out. I'll think about it some more and post an update soon

But this I do know: had Peace Like a River been written in the 1980s, it would have definitely been included in my course syllabus; postmodernism already reigned supreme in my university's English Department. And I would have had something more interesting to write about for my paper than Zebulon Pike's winter temperature readings at the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

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