Riding the wave of Leif Enger's dazzling debut
Leif Enger's novel, Peace Like a River, is generating enough pre-publication buzz that it is already being compared to Charles Frazier's 1997 surprise National Book Award winner, Cold Mountain. That's not a bad comparison. Both novels seem to have come out of nowhere and arrived fully formed, alive with inspired casts of characters and powered by an old-time joy in storytelling. Of the two, Peace Like a River is the more humorous, though its humor is shaded by enough tragedy to make the experience of reading it complete and resonant.
And there all comparisons should end. Because Peace Like a River casts a spell all its own. The spell is already being felt in the book world: enthusiastic booksellers are raving, and at a recent national book convention Peace was listed as the "buzz book" to watch. All this attention comes as a total surprise to the book's author, Leif Enger. "I'm completely amazed by it," he says during a call to his home in Minnesota, where he lives with his wife and two sons. In my greatest dreams of success—which every struggling writer lives upon—I didn't dream that something like this could happen."
Enger, who has wanted to write fiction since his teens, was a reporter and producer for Minnesota Public Radio from 1984 until the sale of Peace Like a River to publisher Grove/Atlantic allowed him to take time off to write. In the 1990s, he and his older brother, Lin, writing under the pen name L.L. Enger, produced a series of mystery novels featuring a retired baseball player.
"It was one of those mercenary adventures that comes up empty-handed," Enger says with a remarkably good-natured laugh. "Nobody really read them and they didn't get much attention and we didn't get paid very much for them. We had a lot of fun doing it, and it was a fabulous apprenticeship for me."
By the time he began to write Peace Like a River six years ago, Enger had given up great expectations of publishing glory. "I figured since I had given commercial writing my very best shot, I was free to just write something that I could read to my wife and kids. When I finished a scene I would gather them around and read it to them, and if it didn't make them laugh or if it didn't provoke some strong reaction, I knew I had to go back to the drawing board. What I wanted to do and what I think I did is just put everything that I love into it. I didn't think about the book commercially until I was over half done and I realized the book was going to have an end."
As heart-warming as all that sounds, Enger also notes that the kernel of the book "was a little bit of desperation." Peace Like a River is set in the Midwest in 1962 and is an account of events that occurred when narrator Reuben Land was 11 years old. As a boy, Reuben was so severely afflicted by asthma that he was unable to draw breath at birth and was only saved by his miracle-performing father, Jeremiah.
"When I was starting the book six years ago, my son was fighting a terrible case of asthma," Enger says. "He was just fighting for breath. It was terribly frightening for Robin and me. We didn't know what was going on. We didn't know how to treat it. We didn't know how to prevent it. As a parent you want to work a miracle. You would take your son's place if you could. Basically I wanted to understand what he was going through and I wanted to somehow translate my wish for his good health into the book. All I knew at the beginning was that the narrator was asthmatic and his father did miracles."
From that beginning, Enger weaves a story that is a surprising and beguiling mix of heroic quest, cowboy romance and moral fable. Reuben's older brother Davy gets caught up in an escalating feud with two small-town bullies, is charged and tried for murdering them, and when the verdict seems about to go against him, escapes on horseback for parts unknown. Reuben, his father and his younger sister Swede set out in their Airstream trailer to find the outlaw Davy Land, and along the way, Reuben learns more than most of us about sacrifice, redemption and faith.
Reuben's younger sister Swede is a writer of heroic cowboy verse about a complicated hero named Sunny Sundown. Her talents, swift wit and force of personality hold her older 11-year-old brother in her thrall. The two share a fascination for the West and, indeed, seem to live out a kind of timeless cowboy adventure.
By rights, a storyline like this should not work in a literary novel like Peace Like a River. But such is Enger's unflagging, high-spirited storytelling that the relationship between Reuben and his cowboy poet sister is a high point of the novel. As is her clunky, comical, oddly affecting verse.
"That stuff was tremendously easy to write," says Enger, who relates childhood memories of long summer afternoons dressed in a breechcloth roaming the woods and fields around their home in Osakis, Minnesota, with his older brothers. "I'm kind of like Reuben, in that I'm a very slow study of things, and don't think well on my feet. But I love people who are fast and brilliant like Swede."
He adds, "Swede almost had to be a poet and write heroic couplets and cowboy verse because I grew up being read to from Robert Service, who wrote the great sourdough poetry, The Ballad of Dan McGrew, The Ballad of Blasphemous Bill and The Ballad of the Iceworm Cocktail. And then there is Robert Louis Stevenson. Mom read us Treasure Island every year for many years, starting before I was old enough to understand any of it. It was confusing to me, but I loved it. I loved the play of words. I loved the language. He was a strikingly contemporary writer for the time; he was ahead of his time. He's my favorite writer of all time. I just love his poems, his great adventure tales, his brand of moral fiction."
Then, finally, at the very end of our conversation, Enger describes one of those unexpected moments when creative opportunity presents itself:
"I was about 20 pages into the manuscript and was working on it early one morning when my youngest son, John, got up and came toddling in in his pajamas. He said: 'How's it going, Dad?' I said: 'It's going pretty well.' He said: 'You got any cowboys in that book yet?' And I said: 'No, not yet. But that's a fabulous idea. You think I should?' And he said: 'Yes!' I said: 'Well if you could give me a good name, I'll put a cowboy in the book.' And he said: 'Sunny Sundown.' No hesitation. Sunny Sundown. He'd been thinking about Sunny, apparently, for a while. I just happened to be at a spot where I could take off into it. By the end of the day the first few stanzas of Sunny were written and I just never looked back."
And thus a cowboy, a cowboy poet and a novel of uncommon appeal are born.
Alden Mudge is a writer in Oakland, California.