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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 12, 2003

Quiet best seller finds little miracles in life

• How the story begins ...
• Joining our book club couldn't be easier

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

When Leif Enger wrote the first chapter of "Peace Like a River," he believed he had failed as a commercial writer.

He and his brother Linn had co-authored a series of five murder mysteries about a former major-league baseball player who solves crime in the north woods of Minnesota.

"They had everything a mystery novel should have — women with long legs, really atrocious villains, a great hero. ... We had a lot of fun but you could go into pretty much any bookstore in the country and not find the Gun Pedersen novels, so after five books, we gave up," Enger recalled good-naturedly during a phone interview from his home in Aitken, Minn.

He can afford to be good-natured because the delightful irony is that it was this failure — as difficult as it may have been to take at the time — that gave him the freedom to write what he wanted. "Peace Like a River" was a quiet best seller that was among Time Magazine's Top Five Books of the Year choices in 2001, when it was first released. It is the current selection of The Honolulu Advertiser Book Club.

"Peace Like a River" is the story of an unusual family in the 1960s Midwest: Jeremiah Land and his children Davy, Reuben and Swede, whose lives are graced with miracles even as they are marred by tragedy. When a pair of small-town villains threaten Swede, the teenage Davy takes them on, and then must become an outlaw to escape execution. Left behind, the embattled little family draws together and sets out on an instructive journey.

With echoes of biblical language throughout, the book is about miracles, and witnesses to miracles, and the nature of faith, hope and love. It also wears the delightful patina of well-worn writing conventions — pulp fiction with its heroes and bad guys, mythic tales of epic quest, comic cowboy poetry and the great morality literature of the 19th century.

When he started out, all Enger wanted to do was to write something that would entertain his wife, Robin, a teacher, and his two sons, Ty and John, who were then 7 and 4. The Engers live on a farm in northern Minnesota, and the family custom is to read aloud to each other in the evenings.

Over the course of three or four years in the late 1990s, Enger, who worked as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio for 15 years, read every scene and chapter of the manuscript to his family, listening to their comments, noting the problems they found and even incorporating their ideas in the work.

It was John who invited cowboys into the plot. One early morning, he came by his dad's desk to inquire how the writing was going and to ask hopefully, "Are there any cowboys in it yet?" His father allowed as how there weren't any just yet, but if John could come up with a good name, he'd see that a cowboy got written in. "Well," said John, "Sunny Sundown, that's his name."

So was born the hero of a rhyming poem penned by an extraordinary character, the fearless and complex 9-going-on-39 Swede Land. Swede's poems, which she reads aloud to the novel's narrator, her brother Reuben, become a way for her to deal with the action in the book.

Enger's writing, after its initial aim of entertainment was served, discovered a similar purpose. At the time, his elder son Ty was suffering from severe childhood asthma and often had to be rushed to the hospital. In Reuben, Enger created a character who is robbed of breath from the moment of his birth — the subject of the memorable opening scenes of the novel.

"I wanted to write a book that would help me understand what Ty was going through and that would make him realize that I understood what he was going through," said Enger.

This is, in many ways, an old-fashioned book, and Enger admits to being an old-fashioned guy, informed by what he calls the "social, political and moral landscape of small-town Minnesota." He grew up the youngest of four brothers and sisters in a childhood he describes as "pretty close to ideal." Many scenes in "Peace Like a River" recall a disappeared lifestyle that will be familiar even to older Islanders — the landscape is different, but the freedom and adventure that characterized childhood in a slow-moving, safe, rural environment are the same.

"There were four sturdy imaginations in the family, and three of them older than mine, so they would drag me along and we would run wild through the woods. ... It was a wonderful way to grow up that seems to have largely disappeared because life has become so compartmentalized and specialized, and kids now seem to be often taught that free time is dangerous," he said — breaking off to chuckle at how much of an old fuddy-duddy he sounds like.

Enger's father was the band teacher at the local high school and his mother taught school, too, until she left to become a full-time homemaker. Among her first tasks: introducing each child to the world of books, reading fairy tales and picture books to them, and then the classics such as Robert Louis Stevenson's "Treasure Island."

Leif Enger almost doesn't remember a time when he couldn't read. The house was filled with books.

A high school teacher continued his education in literature, lending him books and urging him to write a novel when he was just 16. He dashed off a few pages, decided he needed more seasoning, and left the dream to later. When "Peace Like a River" came out, he was gratified to learn that this teacher was using the book in her current work, reading with prison inmates.

Such goes-around-comes-around stories are small miracles. But Enger, a church-going man, believes in larger ones — larger, but not simpler. "Peace Like a River," he said, allowed him to write about that.

He desperately would have liked a miracle to heal his asthmatic son. But he knew that faith doesn't rely on miracles and, although inexplicable things occur in the book, they're neither pat nor predictable.

"I believe that miracles happen, but I don't believe they make good television," he said. "I think that faith is something that tends to be quiet and miracles are something that tend to happen in quiet places among people who are not too busy to see them."

Just having the book published — he finished the book and sought an agent at the urging of his wife, and within months saw the manuscript sold in America and several foreign countries — was miracle enough, allowing him to quit his reporting job, pay off the farm and begin another book.

• • •

How the story begins ...

Here, to whet your appetite, is the opening of "Peace Like a River."

"From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with — given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century. Think about your own first gasp: a shocking wind roweling so easily down your throat, and you still slipping around in the doctor's hands. How you yowled! Not a thing on your mind but breakfast, and that was on the way.

"When I was born to Helan and Jeremiah Land, in 1951, my lungs refused to kick in.

"My father wasn't in the delivery room or even in the building; the halls of Wilson Hospital were close and short, and Dad had gone out to pace in the damp September wind. He was praying, rounding the block for the fifth time, when the air quickened. He opened his eyes and discovered he was running — sprinting across the grass toward the door.

" 'How'd you know?' I adored this story, made him tell it all the time.

" 'God told me you were in trouble.'

" 'Out loud? Did you hear Him?'

" 'Nope, not out loud. But He made me run, Reuben. I guess I figured it out on the way.' "

• • •

Joining our book club couldn't be easier

Here's how to get involved in The Honolulu Advertiser Book Club:

Membership: There is no formal membership. Just read the book and participate in the virtual discussion by sending in your comments and questions.

Our book: "Peace Like a River," by Leif Enger; Grove/Atlantic, paper, $13.

Reading period: Through Feb. 21

Next "discussion": March 2

To participate in the discussion: Write Wanda Adams, Books Editor, The Advertiser, P.O. Box 3110, Honolulu, HI 96802. Fax: 525-8055. E-mail: bookclub@honoluluadvertiser.com.

Listen: To the "Sandwich Islands Literary Circle" at 9:30 tonight, KHPR 88.1 FM, KKUA 90.7 FM Maui, KANO 91.1 FM Hilo; or hear the program online, starting tomorrow at the URL below.

If you have trouble finding the book: Please phone Wanda Adams, 535-8036. We want to keep tabs on supply.

To experience the book club online: Visit http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/current/il/bookclub.