Book Review: "Peace Like a River"

This book!

Perhaps, if I didn't have broken lungs, or perhaps if I didn't deeply love two asthmatics this book may not have grabbed me as quickly as page 19. But it did. Here, I'll show you what I mean.

A word here about this business of taking a breath. If you're someone who's never had to think about it, never had to exert muscular effort to do it -- never lain awake through endless dark hours knowing you'd stop doing it forever if you happened to fall asleep -- then indulge me. Think of a bellows, such as you use to rouse a fire. Really moves the air, doesn't it? Now imagine a tiny, malignant, wind-carried seed entering that bellows on the inhale and sticking inside. Slowly -- slowly! -- a sponge begins to grow. You don't even notice, early on; you just have to work a little harder to get a flame. But as time passes you see that the bellows won't close all the way; it's taking shallower gulps. And down inside the sponge keeps growing. You shut your eyes and concentrate, hoping to head this off. Air in. Air out. You imagine the Arctic, its clean snowscape where no pollens lie. You imagine a great white bear trotting on the ice pack under a cold blue sky; he's been trotting that way for days -- air in, air out -- his bellows a happy machine; look at him cover the ground. You think, I am the bear. It works for a short while, or seems to. The snow creaks, your nostrils steam, you trot, you breathe -- but soon you give it up. Despite all stratagems, your bellows is sponge bound. Your breaths are sips, couldn't blow out the candle on a baby's cake. And now the fire gets close and sticky all around; and working those filled and paralytic lungs you understand, in a frozen sweat, that morning is miles and miles away, and the house is quiet with the smooth aspirations of your family, and if you fall asleep from pure exhaustion the sponge will win and you will be singing hymns by sunrise, at the feet of the Lord, in a body glorified.

I do not exaggerate.

- Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

When I read those paragraphs, I nearly choked and there was definitely a tear rolling down my cheek. I understood, in my core. When Joshua was two years old, he was hospitalized with pneumonia. We did not yet know he had asthma. Chris spent 24 hours getting home as fast as he could from France so it was up to me to keep our boy breathing. Every time he fell asleep, his oxygen saturation numbers would drop dangerously low. A nurse would rush in to wake him up and get him to take deep breaths of the life-saving oxygen blowing through his face mask. I spent the whole night laying on his bed, keeping him propped up and begging the Lord to give him one more breath. One more.

We had hospitals. And pressurized oxygen. And bronchodilators. Nine-year-old Reuben, the boy describing asthma above, did not. He lived in the 1950's, a time when a doctor could diagnose a breathing disorder but could do nothing to treat it. Powerless.

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This book is not about asthma. It is about Reuben but his asthma plays an important role throughout the story. And it is about Reuben's family: his single father Jeremiah Land who prays like a saint, his older sister Swede who writes epic poems about a hero named Sunny Sundown, and his older brother Davey who is a man with a man-sized problem by the age of 17.

As the story unfolds, anticipation builds. I felt as if I was waiting for something but the something was unclear. Trust me, it became clear in the end. Hang in.

This book is a work of fiction, but that didn't make it any less relatable. It's the themes. They wove their way into the subconscious so that I couldn't find a quiet moment without one of them sneaking in to take over my thoughts for days after I finished reading.

  • religion and miracles

  • family loyalty

  • the protective desire take upon yourself the hardship that comes to one you love

That last one gripped me. In three places, Jeremiah whispered what his heart desired, "I'd trade places with you if I could," and without another detail, I understood. Thinking back to that hospitalization, you better believe I wished I could trade places with my son. I prayed to be able to carry the burden of breathing for my baby. As a Christian, I know Jesus took the burden of my guilt and shame completely. If it's possible for mere humans to take a fraction of another's pain and suffering (which I believe is true), I would absolutely sign up as a parent to take the pain of my children. Jeremiah Land's desire is my own.

Leif Enger is a masterful writer and Peace Like a River is a powerful story. Don't hesitate to pick this one up and add it to your Summer Reading List.

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