let wonder be our guide in this age of the apocalpytic: Leif Enger/Peace Like a River

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

I confess: I am the last person in America to read Leif Enger's Peace Like a River. The last person to wake earlier than the usual early to get more pages in. The last person to brim up over the magnitude of this book's heart. The last person to sit very quietly still after the final sentence was sung and wish that the book had not been read yet—that it was still out there, rewarding discovery, still out there, beckoning.

For what a book is this book about an asthmatic boy and his literary sister, their miracle-stirring father, their outlaw brother, the minor and major sacrifices one makes when protecting love against the provable facts of a crime. This story about the wild west, the Valdezes and Cassidys, the crags in the earth that burn unending fires, the storms that blow in the snow or simply blow the snow, the quality of icing on cinnamon raisin buns. The stars:

They burned yellow and white, and some of them changed to blue or a cold green or orange—Swede should've been there, she'd have had words. She'd have known that orange to be volcanic or forgestruck or a pinprick between our blackened world and one the color of sunsets. I thought of God making it all, picking up handfuls of whatever material, iron and other stuff, rolling it in. His fingers like nubby wheat. The picture I had was of God taking these rough pellets by the handful and casting them gently, like a man planting. Look at the Milky Way. It has that pattern, doesn't it, of having been cast there by the back-and-forward sweep of His arm?

Magnificent, right? Magnificent. And not an ounce of the angry in this book, which is not to say there is no moral complexity or confusion. Not a whiff of cynicism, which is not to say that this ageless/timeless book is devoid of brave impartings. When I think about why I love this book so much, I think it has something to do with this: it is not afraid to be alive with the wonder of our living.

Am I right? Perhaps. For when I set off to read more about Enger, I came upon this excerpt from a Mark LaFramboise interview. Wonder is his topic—the importance of holding fast, and holding true, to the mysterious.

There is no greater lesson, I believe, for anyone writing right now. We seem in all-out pursuit of edge and bitterness, declarations of the apocalyptic. But aren't our very best books sprung from respect for natural and man-made loveliness?

Q: Although the narrator tells the story in retrospect, we see the world through the eleven- year old eyes of Reuben. How were you able to capture the wonder, fears, and curiosity of such a young protagonist?

A: First, my parents gave me the sort of childhood now rarely encountered. Summers were beautiful unorganized eternities where we wandered in the timber unencumbered by scoutmasters. We dressed in breechclouts and carried willow branch bows, and after supper Dad hit us fly balls. It was probably most idyllic for me as the youngest of four, since three worthy imaginations were out beating the ground in front of me; who knew what might jump up? Now I see that same freedom in the lives of our two sons, whose interests cover the known map. It's easy to witness the world through the eyes of a boy when you have two observant ones with you at all times. But the ruinous thing about growing up is that we stop creating mysteries where none exist, and worse, we usually try to deconstruct and deny the genuine mysteries that remain. We argue against God, against true romance, against loyalty and self-sacrifice. What allows Reuben to keep his youthful perspective is that he's seen all these things in action -- he is the beneficiary of his father's faith. He is a witness of wonders. To forget them would be to deny they happened, and denying the truth is the beginning of death.


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