Faith, miracles and a profound story of love and tragedy
A talk with author Leif Enger
By Jody Ewing
February 20, 2003
Leif Enger’s debut novel is of uncommon wisdom — equal parts tragedy, love story, faith and meditation — unfolding like a revelation in the midst of miracles and magic.
Set against the Minnesota countryside and North Dakota Badlands in the early 1960s, Peace Like a River is a story about a family whose lives are upended when Davy, the oldest son, kills two marauders who have come to harm his family. Hailed a hero by some, a murderer by others, Davy escapes from his cell the morning of his sentencing.
Narrated by 11-year-old Reuben Land — an asthmatic “born without air in his lungs” — the story recounts the journey he takes with his father, Jeremiah, and 9-year-old poet sister, Swede, to rescue one of their own. Reuben has little doubt that miracles abound and suspects his father, a school janitor, “is touched by God and can overturn the laws of nature.” Yet as their voyage intersects with the beauty and cruelty of the natural world, they are forced to face their own ideals of love, family loyalty, sacrifice and faith.
Enger, born in Sauk Centre, Minn., to Osakis High School bandleader Don and teacher Wilma Enger, fell in love with language at a very early age after his mother’s yearly reading of [Stevenson’s] “Treasure Island.” He went on to spend 16 years working as writer/producer for Minnesota Public Radio.
Selected for the statewide book study initiative “All Iowa Reads 2003,” Peace Like a River began with a basic, yet central desire: “As a parent you want to work a miracle.” At the time, Enger’s oldest son, then 7, was struggling with a distressing case of asthma.
In a telephone interview from his home in Minnesota — where he lives with wife Robin and sons Ty and John — Enger spoke about miracles and faith, and how they found their way into Peace Like a River.
Was there anything prior to your son fighting asthma that made you realize you had to write this particular story?
No, there was not. I had been writing mystery novels with my brother Lin. We wrote the most commercial mysteries we possibly could in the quest for audience, and still the audience stayed away. We published five mystery novels and finally we just gave up because we were too tired to keep going any longer. I took a month or two off, where I no longer got up at five in the morning and wrote until seven.
Ty was going through such terrible asthma at the time and Robin and I wanted more than anything to do some miraculous thing on his behalf so that he could take an easy breath from time to time. During that couple of months, this story just started to crystallize in my mind. You know that if you have a child with a condition like that, that you would do anything to make that child better. You would take their place in an instant if you could. That became the seed of this book.
How do you feel about the Iowa Center for the Book choosing your novel as the first for ‘All Iowa Reads 2003?’
It’s a huge honor, of course. It’s hard to know how to respond to something like that because you don’t expect anything like that when you’re working on your book in the dark hours of early morning. You expect to write something that your wife and kids will like, maybe. To have something like this happen is pretty remarkable. But there’s no way to expect or deserve anything like this.
What type of dialogue – with so many Iowans reading this book – do you hope this will create?
I think that when people come together to discuss something, whether it’s something they’ve read, or a movie they’ve all watched, what’s important is not really the story itself; it’s not really the thing they have in common. What’s important is that they are getting together and that they are talking about things.
The themes of this book are love, sacrifice, loyalty, belief, disbelief, and I suppose the extent to which we forgive people who do awful things. These have always been good, sturdy topics, and hard ones, I think, to talk about, especially when faith enters the conversation. I guess what I would hope is that when people talk it over, that they’re listening closely to what each other has to say.
Do you equate yourself with one character in particular?
Probably Reuben more than the others. He’s the younger brother who doesn’t have an interesting life, while his older brother does. I’ve always felt kind of that way. I’m the youngest in my family, and as the youngest, I think you grow up feeling that you’re missing out, that you’re not getting to have the “real” adventures that the other kids had when they were your age. Partly that’s because they’re always telling you those stories: here’s what I did when I was your age. And they sound so magnificent and adventurous.
How would you describe Reuben’s ultimate journey and revelation?
I think Reuben is a kid who, like most kids that age, hasn’t asked himself very many hard questions at the time the story begins. He hasn’t asked questions about what he believes or why he believes it. He’s never thought to question his loyalty to his older brother or to his father. I think a big part of Reuben’s journey and a big part of his growing up is that he is prompted through these events to ask himself how far you go in being loyal to a brother who has done an awful deed, and how far you go in agreeing with your father.
I think the same thing happens to some extent with what he believes about God and about his father, and his father’s relationship with God. He has to come to some point where he takes responsibility for his own decisions and his own spiritual life. We all know people whom we love dearly and we would defend them for anything, but even people we love dearly sometimes do horrible things. Do we stop loving them? No, of course not. But there comes a point, I suppose, where you can’t defend them, either.
Given the teachers now reading and studying your book, was there one particular teacher at Moorhead State [where Enger majored in English], who influenced your writing?
Actually there were a couple of them. Mark Vinz is still there, and he was my creative writing teacher. He had such a wonderful way of encouraging writers who were trying hard, which is just what I was — a kid who didn’t know what he was doing but was trying hard. He was encouraging to me, and a very fine writer himself and a great poet.
The other, Melva Moline, was actually a professor of newswriting. Her class was a great experience. We’d walk in and she would hand out 12 sheets of paper with a fact on them. In 50 minutes we had to write 12 news stories based on the fact sheets we were given. What that did was it taught me, number one, to assimilate information quickly, but two, how to tell a story that moved along because you have no choice. That was good experience, even for something as long-winded as a novel.
The temptation when you’re writing a novel is to get captured in your own language, to sort of get caught in that web of prose. And it’s always a temptation, because you’re in love with the language. You write partly because you love words so much.
What do you want the title to convey, and were there other alternatives?
I was sitting in church one morning — a Sunday morning — and we were singing this hymn called “It Is Well With My Soul,” and the first stanza of the hymn goes:
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well, with my soul.
It’s a beautiful old hymn that you find in lots of different hymnals, and that phrase just jumped out at me. I was just starting to think about this book at the time, and I thought, ‘what a marvelous book title that is,’ and it just seemed to personify something about the book: a peacefulness, the sadness, it’s all there. And so I wrote toward that title — that was the title I always wanted the book to bear.