Peace Like a River by Leif Enger (Fiction)

Writing: 4 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 5

11 year-old Reuben was born to witness. Coming into the world with troublesome lungs, his father called him to life after the doctors had long given him up for dead. In this book, he bears witness to the events in Roofing, Minnesota that cause his elder brother, Davy, to shoot two boys dead; Davy’s subsequent escape from prison; and the long search that Reuben, his father, Jeremiah, and younger sister, Swede, take looking for him.

Beautiful descriptions of a harsh landscape that yet evokes “home” to our characters and a moral undertone that is never preachy and yet fully covers each individual’s worried contemplation of the situation. Well-drawn and intimate characters — Jeremiah has a special relationship with God and performs miracles that only Reuben seems to see; Swede has an off-the-charts imagination and bangs away at her typewriter working her ideas into narratives and poetry; Roxanna Crawley runs a gas station in a remote town and is big, warm, and has possession of an astonishingly large vocabulary; and Andreesen — the “putrid fed” — chases Davy, but is slowly revealed to be honorable and compassionate.

I had some trouble getting started with this book. The first third — taking us through Davy’s escape — was slow, stressful, and full of (what felt to me as) injustice. I didn’t like it at all but kept plugging away as I was reading it for a book club. Then it simply took off into something wonderful. It’s rare that I read a book with that kind of composition (probably because I give up too soon) but I recommend skimming if necessary to get to the good part.

Good for fans of Ivan Doig or Markus Zusak.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger

Thank you to Grove Atlantic and NetGalley for an early review copy of Virgil Wander by Leif Enger, which will publish October 2, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 5+ Story: 5 Characters: 5

A wonderful book — perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner. I hope that it is nominated for (and wins!) the Pulitzer Prize. It is that good.

The story takes place in Greenstone, Minnesota — a fading town in the Northern wilds of Minnesota, near Lake Superior. It is the story of the fading town, the fading men in it, and the opportunity of redemption and resurrection for both. While there are strong, interesting, female characters as well, the real focus is on the men — not the stereotype of men, but real individuals at different stages of life with their own internal struggles and desires. I loved the insight into each and every one of these characters.

Virgil Wander, the eponymous protagonist, is a fading man himself. He describes himself as “a Midwestern male cruising at medium altitude, aspiring vaguely to decency, contributing to PBS, moderate in all things including romantic forays, and doing unto others more or less reciprocally.” He runs the town’s Majestic theater — badly in need of a new roof and a more significant audience. The story opens when his car takes a dive off a bridge and he sails into the frigid water. Rescued by happenstance, he is a teetering, tottering, slightly damaged version of himself. He doesn’t recognize his clothes, has trouble finding the right words, and has inexplicably lost his fear of speaking up. He has become “impervious to sarcasm.”

It is full of wonderful characters such as Rune, a kite-flying, pixie of an elderly man from Tromso, who arrives to find out more about the son he never knew he had; Tom Beaman, the Samoan journalist and owner of the local paper (and Genghis, a pet raccoon); Shad Pea, an elderly fisherman with a wife in care and a disturbed son; Nadine and her son Bjorn, the wife and son of the missing Alec Sandstrom, and Adam Leer, son of the town’s original founder who made good in Hollywood, but has somehow come to embody all that is negative in the town — a smiling predator.

The language is beautiful — the description of places, people, and the things that are important to them (fishing, kite-flying, baseball) is suffused with a kind of magic that captures their very essence in just a few choice words. Every page is delightful with both despair and hope somehow tangled together.

Great lines:

“Yet it was also true he had a headful of spiders which woke now and then and altered his personal scenery.”

“It was disconcerting to think it might’ve shown itself at last, only to be swaddled in the bubble-wrap of concussion.”

“What I suddenly missed as Bjorn talked away, was the easy arrival of interests. Of obsessions.”

“ He had the heartening bulk of the aging athlete defeated by pastry”

“His gentle baritone came at me like elbows.”

“Within weeks certain prodigal words started filtering home. They came one at a time or in shy small groups.”

“He had a hundred merry crinkles at his eyes and a long-haul sadness in his shoulders.”

“I appear briefly as a ‘sun-deprived projectionist’ with ‘a degree of forbearance approaching perpetual defeat.’ “

“It’s never been hard for me to fall in love, a quality that has yet to simplify one single day of my life.”