Some readers may remember Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” It is a long poem from 1798, an early example of English romantic poetry. The poem recounts the adventure of the Ancient Mariner, who tells the tale. His story is of fate, chance, guilt, endless wandering, and perhaps redemption.
Those who remember the poem will probably recall its opening lines--
It is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.
'By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?
The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din.'
He holds him with his skinny hand,
'There was a ship,' quoth he.
'Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!'
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.
He holds him with his glittering eye—
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years' child:
The Mariner hath his will.
My post today is about a novel in which, akin to the ancient mariner who stoppeth one of three, its narrator reaches out and grips my arm while I hurry along to the wedding feast or to whatever other event attracts me, and he compels me, instead, to stop and to hear his tale of supernatural and saga-like truth.
The teller of this novel is aware that his story is an old-fashioned kind of a story in which he recounts elements of miracle and of faith interspersed with events of daily life in a way that doesn’t get told much in fiction nowadays. His tale is of a sacramental kind; it draws upon the Christian supernatural to show life’s richness and to reveal the nature of God.
Like the wedding guest, I am captivated by this “ancient mariner” and cannot tear myself away from his tale, not only because of the fascinating events he describes, but because of the extraordinary mastery of English prose that the teller has at his disposal and reveals to us.
Further, I am a man familiar with the Bible, and I am one who wonders, as some other readers of the Bible may do, what life would have been like in a world and time when miracle and faith—and journeys prompted by miracle and faith—simply occur. In biblical time, miracle and faith were woven within the weft and the warp of reality. They reveal the nature of God, in all its surprise.
As a modern man, I know, of course, that nothing akin to the biblical experience, say, of Abraham, who is called by God to go on a journey--and without argument or insisting on explanation just does so—nothing of this ancient kind can happen in our modern world and time.
The world and time we encounter in Peace Like a River is indeed our modern world and time.
Minnesota. North Dakota. Rural. Mostly winter—deep winter. 1962. And later.
This is a story about family, and about a family.
It is about an admirable father who must raise two boys and a girl alone. A shooting occurs. The older son, at sixteen, hard headed, defends his family and is forced to flee. The father, the second son—at eleven—and the daughter—at eight—are called to a journey of miracle and faith.
It is the eleven-year-old son who plays the part of the ancient mariner, and who reaches out and grabs me by the arm and compels me to listen to his first person tale. His name is Reuben Land. He is asthmatic; sometimes the full and easy wind does not blow through his lungs as it ought.
His sister is Swede, a poetic savant even at age eight, who loves and literarily inhabits the Old West and its romantic hero tales (I can imagine that Swede may already have memorized Coleridge’s poem as a precursor of such western myths—though with mountains and desert, not ocean—as written by Zane Gray!)
To those readers who have not read this tale, I plead with you. Allow yourself to be fed and exuberantly nourished by this story. If you have already read it, here’s a call to read it again.
Peace Like a River was published in 2002 by author Leif Enger. People were captivated. The book is a best seller.
Readers are divided in their response.
Amazon shows 1,013 reviews, 854 of them extolling the book as a masterpiece, and 159 of them saying “boring,” “too slow,” “unbelievable characters,” “too wordy,” and asking “what’s the point?”
I’ve read through most of the 159 negative reviews, and I’ll react to some of them below.
But first: Peace Like a River resonates with each of the qualities I expressed above. It resonates with a sacramental revelation of miracle, of faith, of human decency, of family cohesion, and of wonder.
Furthermore, most Christians (and even some others) probably know the title of the hymn, and its refrain, that is evoked by the title of this novel – It is well with my soul.
Having read nearly 159 negative reviews, my reaction is this –
With due deference because I cannot know another person’s heart, and speaking with humility because I do not seek to impose my literary taste on another, I need to say – those poor people; they just don’t get it.
I cannot read this captivating tale and not be powerfully acquainted that, due to my hours and hours spent following the journeys of father Jeremiah Land, oldest son Davy Land, middle child Reuben Land, and daughter Swede Land—and reading with breathless joy and surprise, it is well with my soul.
…and with the souls of 854 other reviewers, too.
Reuben speaks to us as an adult recounting the tale of his family as he saw it through his eyes when he was an eleven-year-old.
Some negative reviewers complain that eleven-year-old Reuben would not speak with the sort of diction or vocabulary that he does. Two answers to that complaint.
One, he isn’t eleven. He’s an adult.
Two, how do you know he wouldn’t?
At eleven, he’s a boy raised by a father who has most of the King James Bible in memory and who speaks to his son, sometimes, using the King’s English. Furthermore, Reuben’s little sister, with whom he most intimately communicates, actually is a literary savant, and that rubs off on Reuben.
Reuben is charming in his tale, sometimes by going off on tangents, and he is self-deprecating. I like to listen to him. As for his supposed unbelievable felicity with the English language, he makes it clear that Swede far surpasses him in that respect. And she does.
“Too slow,” some reviewers grumble.
Just because there’s a shooting and a journey does not mean that modern taste for flash-bang thriller pace is warranted.
Read Peace Like a River and exercise your taste for slowness, thoroughness, contemplation, and charm.
Discernment is Ruben’s effort as he tells us his tale. Regarding the Land family’s uncommon supernatural experiences, Reuben doesn’t agonize in our modern way over why; he just tells us what happened. Make of it what you will (this is a line that is repeated in the book).
And Reuben tells us what happened while he—as an adult—draws us in, entices our minds, tickles our fancies, and leads us along what appear at first to be verbal tangents that humanly enrich the story’s attachment to duty, honor, self-sacrifice, and love.
“What’s the point?”
There is a point.
It would be a spoiler to tell you what the point is, so I won’t.
But think Bible. There’s a point in that book, too. But you might not imagine the whole of the point when you first pick it up to read.
Now, of course this novel is not the Bible. But remember I enticed you to follow this post because I am interested—and you may be interested also—in the subject of what the nature of biblical times were, when what we term miracles and what we understand as faith were part of the weft and the warp.
What if life could be that way now—or now, as of 1962 and afterwards on the wintery northern plains of the everyday USA?
What if it could?
If it could—listen to me now: if it really, truly could—then after I hear Reuben’s tale, it is well with my soul.
Make of that what you will.