That Final Chapter (Peace Like a River)

I bought Leif Enger’s novel Peace Like a River on the strength of a review by Doug Wilson—or more accurately, on the strength of part of a review by Doug Wilson. I didn’t read his whole post at the time because he warned he’d be giving things away (as will I here, so be warned in your turn).

A grown-up Reuben Land narrates the story of a tumultuous half-year in the lives of his eleven-year-old self, his father Jeremiah, older brother Davy, and younger sister Swede. One November, Davy shoots and kills two teenagers—an act which, while not justifiable, has partial extenuation given the circumstances which had led to that point. Davy escapes before his trial is concluded, and after some weeks the rest of the family set off to find him. The majority of the book recounts their experiences in searching for him, leading to when the family is eventually (and briefly) reunited, before once again being torn apart.

I have mixed feelings about Peace Like a River. Enger certainly knows how to write and having the story told through the eyes of an eleven-year-old boy works well. Reuben is a very human narrator and Swede is wonderfully feisty and likeable. It took me quite a while to get a handle on Jeremiah, and I still don’t completely understand him, but he is one of the great ones of the earth who live in near-obscurity. Enger also aces something which some people seem unable to do: writing a novel from a Christian worldview in a way that isn’t tacky or cheesy (not great adjectives, sorry). I don’t quite know how to describe the difference between that and something like Peace Like a River, but the truth in the latter is both more profound and more subtle than the other variety. Enger scatters some noteworthy insights along the way, one of my favourites being this reflection of Reuben’s near the beginning of the story:

“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.”

So what’s not to like?

The last chapter.

If I could but re-write it! Throughout the story, I was waiting for the final culmination, the final redemption, and it never came—or not in the way I wanted it to. Jeremiah makes a great sacrifice, but the outcome that I wanted from such a sacrifice never came. Davy is still an exile by the end of the story, leaving me wondering: what was the point? I could only see two solutions to the mess Davy had got himself into—that he would be killed (sad as that would have been) or that he would hand himself in to the police. I did not foresee him remaining a (seemingly unrepentant) exile and I don’t like it. I wanted an ending of redemption and grace for him in one way or another, and I didn’t get that.

I admit I’m a happy endings sort of girl. A tie-up-all-the-ends-neat-and-tidy sort of girl. But as a family friend reminded me, when we were discussing the book yesterday, life’s not like that. Yes, for believers it will be that ultimately—eternally—but not necessarily now. Enger is refusing to tie things up neatly, my friend said—he’s doing something better.

Hmmm.

I see his point, both from a literary point of view and from a spiritual point of view. I just don’t like it—either from a literary point of view or from a spiritual point of view. I want happy endings in stories and in real life, and not just in God’s eternal time but in human time too.

But I know that doesn’t happen. Jared Wilson had a helpful post related to this recently:

“You know, it’s possible that God’s plan for us is littleness. His plan for us may be personal failure. It’s possible that when another door closes, it’s not because he plans to open a window but because he plans to have the building fall down on you. The question we must ask ourselves is this: Will Christ be enough?”

And so in this way, Peace Like a River accurately reflects the messiness of life, as my friend said. We might not like the way things turn out, but as Reuben concludes towards the end of his story, shortly before the final action: “Fair is whatever God’ wants to do.”

And as for Peace Like a River, I am sure that Enger knew what he was doing and I’d be interested to hear his thoughts on why he did what he did.

But I’d still like to re-write that last chapter.

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