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'Peace like a river' by Leif Enger

Brotherly love brings out family's best and worst

Sunday, October 14, 2001

By By John Freeman, is a free-lance writer living in New York


Peace like a river

By Leif Enger

Atlantic Monthly Press

Babe Ruth, John Wayne and Michael Jordan are just a few of the many public heroes young boys have looked up to over the years. Yet while these figures straddle decades and spawn their own memorabilia industries, there exists someone loftier yet, one whose tangibility makes him that much more exciting and worthy of veneration:

The older brother.

In his big-hearted debut novel, Leif Enger spins a rich, old-fashioned yarn about brotherhood, faith and family set in Minnesota in the early 1960s. It is a tale full of magical plot twists and supernatural flights of fancy, narrated in the breathless, whisper-in-your-ear voice of Ruben Land, a 10-year-old asthmatic whose dashing older brother, Davy, has become the most hunted fugitive in the country.

Late one night, two bullies break into the Land house seeking revenge on Ruben’s father, Jeremiah, who’d given the boys a well-deserved beating at school. To the thugs’ surprise, Davy awaits them, Winchester in hand.

With two shots, Davy kills them and is whisked away to prison, presumably for life. Within a day, however, he breaks free and becomes a true outlaw, the brightest beacon of hope for his younger siblings.

From here out, the novel unfolds with the cozy, syncopated pacing of a western, as Ruben and his sister, Swede, hunker down and scheme about ways they can hit the road and find their older brother.

A reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio since 1984, Enger has great fun in re-creating the hullabaloo in the local news as Davy is first excoriated, then sanctified, then turned into a villain all over again.

The longer he remains on the lam, the larger Davy’s legend grows, an effect Enger skillfully depicts within the lives of Ruben and Swede. A precocious poet and moralist, Swede responds to the stress by composing an epic poem in rhyming verse about her brother, who is disguised therein as Sunny Sundown, a brave cowboy forever stalked by a villain named Valdez.

For his part, Ruben grows into a serious, worrisome child, determined to claim manhood, yet fearful of its darker truths. In his first, tentative steps toward adulthood, Ruben looks to his missing older brother as a guide and emotional frontiersman.

At first, Davy’s ducking of the law seems noble and true to Ruben. He only wishes he could be out there helping him. Yet as the Lands’ pantry runs thin and their advocates scatter, Ruben contemplates the cost of Davy’s rash decision.

Although the novel meanders and eddies, sometimes for whole chapters at a time, its digressions are lively. Enger sprinkles his tale with evil sheriffs, bumbling local farmers, and -- most of all -- children.

For as the pressure to find Davy mounts, Ruben learns of the compromises and miracles -- yes, miracles -- his father must perform to keep their family together.

In one scene, Jeremiah Land walks on air; in another, he makes 10 gallons of gas last a whole night of driving. In the hands of a lesser writer, such developments might seem phony or a little false, but Enger’s twinkle-eyed prose will coax even the most skeptical readers to suspend their disbelief.

What powers this novel forward -- and sometimes slows it down, then -- is inventiveness. Although marooned in the eye of a public maelstrom, Swede and Ruben let their own feverish imaginings buoy them. Romantic, full of yearning and wisdom, Swede’s poetry becomes their scripture and bread.

Meanwhile, their father reaches within himself for something equally profound. Together, these two forces guide the Lands to their wayward son.

We need to create in order to believe, Enger suggests. And if this wondrous book is any suggestion of its author’s faith in the world, that belief is large and beautiful.

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