There was this book I read and loved,
the story of a ship.
who sailed around the world and found,
that nothing else exists;
beyond his own two sails,
and wooden shell,
and what is held within.
- Bright Eyes
I am an extremist. Janna tells me this all the time. I either love something or it's absolute dreck - not much lives in between. But, I can say for certain that I have reserved the following statement for only two novels in the past ten years. The first is A Prayer for Owen Meany, the second is Peace Like a River. The statement is this: "This is my favorite book."
I finished Peace a month or so ago. I've wanted to write a review of it ever since, but I've held off, mainly because, if I'm being honest with myself, I don't know how to do it justice, despite that Bachelor's degree in English Lit that I purloined back in '99. But, with some encouragement from The Hamster to start talking about literature again, here goes.
I read a lot. Like, more than anyone else I know. In the past week I've finished at least two, maybe three novels (actually, on further review, I think it was four). I probably read at least a hundred books a year. I'm not trying to brag (or as Shaq would say, I'm not trying to be bragadocious). It's just that I can read anywhere, regardless of what's going on around me. I can read and watch TV at the same time. I usually have at least two, sometimes more, going on simultaneously. I read my favorites five, ten times over.
But when I started Peace Like a River, all of that went away. Like the Bright Eyes quote above, there was no other existence than me and the boat I was in. A boat I shared with Jeremiah, Reuben, Swede, and Davy Land. I felt like young Bastian in The Neverending Story, simply disappearing into the novel.
The story is simple. A family in Minnesota in the '60s undergoes a family tragedy of sorts that serves to both bind them together and pull at the fragile seams of their lives. It's a story told from the point of view of an adolescent child, who is just beginning to understand love, all kinds: the love of a father for his sons, the love of a sister for her brothers, the protective love of a big brother, even lust for the opposite sex.
But more than anything, the novel is, for me, an examination of the nature of faith. Not simply faith in Christ, although that's definitely part of it, but a larger faith. As Reuben watches his father, Jeremiah, struggle through raising three children alone, he sees a man who is profound in his faith, so much so that he bears as much resemblance to Peter, James, or John as to the elementary school janitor that he is.
And perhaps the fact that faith is at the core of the story is what lends it such a childlike quality, almost naive in its worldview. It's not a story where everything turns out alright in the end, but there are no lasting tears for what's been lost. It has an innocence that's akin to To Kill a Mockingbird and characters that are as rich as John Irving's. And magic... oh yes, there's magic.
It's difficult for me to muse on an intellectual level about the merits and faults of this one, because it affected me on such an emotional and personal level. I proclaimed it my new favorite immediately upon finishing the last page, and the more I've thought about it and discussed it in the weeks hence, the more I am confident in my proclamation.
My affection (strange how affection and affected are so close) for the novel lies in the details, like in this story about a revival at church. Reuben and his crush, Bethany Orchard, sneak away to the church kitchen for a snack, where she begins to cook pancakes for the two of them. When the smell finds its way into the sanctuary, here's what happens:
Therianus-dequayas-remorey-gungunnas, a man called out, plus a paragraph or so more. I'm not making fun; the language was complicated and musical, an expression outside human usefulness. Expectant silence followed. The Reverend Johnny surveyed the room. At this moment I noticed that the smell of our pancakes - Bethany's and mine, and they'd been good ones - had floated upstairs, a fabulous smell. It occurred to me we might get into some small trouble for using the kitchen during service.
Then Reverend Johnny spoke up. "Does anyone have the interpretation? Who's hearing the word of the Lord tonight?"
Nobody said a thing.
Johnny Latt persisted. "Someone's fighting obedience tonight! Speak up, for no prophecy goes untold. Joe, is it you?"
And Joe, a bull-shouldered patriarch whose shirt stretched wet across his back and who looked to be in deep communication with the Almighty, rose without hesitation and gave it a shot. "O my sons and my daughters, how I love thee! How I wish to provide for thee! Yea, I long to surround thee with delicious smells, heavenly smells! How gladly will I sit thee down in my banquet hall, for beauteous are the cakes therein! Oh, golden is my syrup! And unto me shall gather the hungry from every nation-"
What a shame Swede wasn't there. She'd have adored that prophecy who knows what commentary she'd have whispered in my ear?
Even though I didn't grow up in the '60s, or in Minnesota, there is a feeling of familiarity with the Land family. Just like Jeremiah welcomes even the undesirable door-to-door salesman into their home for dinner, you, the reader, are welcomed in to the Land clan.
I guess that's where the brilliance of the book lies. Just like with Harper Lee's Finches, the reader becomes a de facto member of the family. Relation becomes instantaneous, not something you have to work at. Empathy is not difficult, not forced, because these people are people you wish were your flesh and blood, people you want to sit down for breakfast with. Maybe having been an adolescent boy once upon a time helps. Maybe having sisters, maybe being a person of faith. Maybe just being a member of the human race is good enough.
Please read this. Please?