Miracles, Westerns, and a Mid-West Road Trip: Peace Like A River

peace-like-a-river2It seems my reading has really slowed down after wrapping up my dissertation a week and a half ago. I suppose I am having a bit of a lull after doing so much reading and writing over the past year and a half. Anyways, I picked up Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River on the recommendation of a friend. He suggested it was a mix of magic realism and the western genre, and he wasn’t inaccurate. Peace Like a River centres on the fateful actions of Davy Land who kills two boys in self-defense but then escapes jail and disappears into the American prairies. The novel is narrated by his younger brother, Reuben, a quirky asthmatic who longs for the ability to breath easily and fully. After Davy’s disappearance, his father Jeremiah decides to take their Plymouth car and Airstream trailer out of small-town Minnesota and head west, ostensibly on vacation but actually hoping to find Davy. Reuben’s sister Swede, who aspires to be a writer and loves Zane Grey Westerns, accompanies them and becomes a pseudo-chronicler of the trip as she writes an epic long poem about a vigliant cowboy (Sunny Sundown) trying to hunt down a dastardly villain. The poem provides an interesting counterpoint to the novel’s action as Sundown’s morals and character change according to the increasingly complex moral world that Reuben and Swede find themselves in.

I hesitate to call Peace Like a River a satire of Westerns because it is clear that Enger also has an affectionate attachment to that genre. I cannot claim an intimate familiarity with it, but it’s not hard to pick up the traces of the genre within the novel’s movement. Of course, Peace Like a River is an update Western with the horses replaced (for the most part) by a Plymouth family wagon and the Wild West replaced by the economically-depressed American midwest. Davy is both the villain (he escaped from prison before his trial and is hunted for by federal agents) and the loner hero who is misunderstood by others. There are chases, close calls, guns, and even Swede riding on an authentic Mexican saddle (on a sawhorse in the trailer … there’s also a fair bit of humour too). I suspect that a love for westerns will make this book great in those readers’ minds, but it is not essential as I found it engaging and enthralling.

The other part of the novel that I need to mention is the use of miracles. Peace Like a River is an explicitly Christian novel in that Reuben and his family are Christians, but, more importantly, the novel is a spiritual journey on Reuben’s part. He struggles to understand his father who was on the path to becoming a doctor, but decided on the calling of the Holy Spirit to abandon this pursuit. At the novel’s start he is a lowly school janitor, but boasts an impressive prayer life such that Reuben is witness to various miracles including healing various ailments and walking on air. These events are where the novel borders on magic realism, but I hesitate to call them that because in the imaginative realm of the novel they are simply events (miraculous though they may be). Magic realism has a very specific lineage and genealogy that I’m not sure Peace Like a River fits into (see this site for a discussion of its meanings). If miracles aren’t your thing, then this novel may not be for you … or it may change your mind. Anyways, miracles are a key theme in the novel and I found Enger’s use of them intriguing and sophisticated.

Overall, I loved this novel and am planning on teaching it this fall in a first-year literature and composition class. I would highly recommend this book to all readers.

Enger, Leif. Peace Like a River. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 2001. Print.

Mortality Comes Home, and Other Poems: Brilliant Falls

9781554471232_bAnother bit of work slipping into the pleasure reading for the year, but John Terpstra’s Brilliant Falls would have been on this list anyways had I owned it when I made the list. Terpstra is a Hamilton-based poet who has consistently and unfairly flown under the radar of Canadian poetry`s landscape for a long time now. I`m not totally sure why this is, but it might be partly because he has taken a rather unconventional path to poetry. Where many Canadian poets are employed by universities or colleges to pay their bills, Terpstra is a self-employed cabinetmaker. This career is reflected in his poetic output with Naked Trees being a reflection of his own relationship to urban trees while numerous other poems take up trees and wood. The other reason that Terpstra might be passed over is because of his Christian overtones and imagery. His own relationship to the church and faith is explored in Skin Boat: Acts of Faith and Other Navigations, a work of non-fiction published in a beautiful edition by Gaspereau Press. Regardless, Brilliant Falls is a strong collection of poems by a mature poet who knows his voice and craft.

While many poetry collections lack a strong sense of connection across their length, this is not the case with Brilliant Falls. Human mortality is featured in many of the poems with a sequence of six poems, in particular, that reflect on death and its meaning for those who go on living. This is, in no small part, because Terpstra`s own parents have died in the last number of years and poems like “Driving Home Christmas” and “Emptying the House” reflect directly on these experiences. “Driving Home Christmas” is one of the strongest poems in the collection as Terpstra works his way through his father’s death near Christmas Day and the annual depression he undergoes at this time of year now. I particularly like how he skillfully weaves mortality with the Christian meaning of Christmas which celebrates the birth of God. What I think I like most of all is his honesty – it is clear that Terpstra struggled to write through these lines and I appreciate this. Reflecting on the lack of people at his father’s funeral, Terpstra writes

” … The place should have been packed,
but it was Christmas Eve, people were busy or away,
and it’s not as though the place was empty, but that I
expected more, and didn’t know I expected more
until the building didn’t fill to the rafters,
and the sky didn’t open to angels. Singing.”

The lack of crowd contrasts with the speaker’s own sense of death while Terpstra also alludes to the familiar Christmas annunciation story with angels announcing Christ’s birth. My favorite poem in the collection is “Topographies of Easter,” the poem from which the book’s title comes. Terpstra’s Falling into Place, a work of creative non-fiction exploring Hamilton’s geography, is a personal favorite and in “Topographies of Easter” Terpstra looks again at the Hamilton landscape. He describes Hamilton’s landscape as:

” … this body that is broken
by time and season and violence too deep
for us to wonder at the source, broken
into beauty that lures our present rambling
and leads us to the edge of this escarpment”

I love the way Terpstra recognizes the enormity of geological forces; forces which dwarf the human ability to manipulate the world. But I also love the way that Terpstra captures the rugged beauty of the Niagara Escarpment, a geological feature that lures us forward. I’ll admit that I am biased towards Terpstra because of my own religious views and the fact that I live in Hamilton. However, I do think that his poetry is well worth the time.

I highly recommend Brilliant Falls for any fans of Canadian poetry.

Terpstra, John. Brilliant Falls Kentville, NS: Gaspereau Press, 2013. Print.

Essential Reading: Everything That Rises Must Converge

oconnor-cover-for-everything-that-rises-must-convergeIt seems strange to me that only a year or so ago, I had not really read Flannery O’Connor. Sure, I’d studied “A Good Man is Hard to Find” and ” Good Country People”, but I had not truly read her. You need to experience O’Connor’s work in its full depth. One story, even if it is a real gem like “A Good Man” or “Good Country People” , does not really do here justice. I read A God Man is Hard to Find last yearand thoroughly enjoyed it. Having just finished Everything That Rises Must Converge, I believe this is a stronger collection and left my jaw dropped consistently. This is O’Connor at her strongest, touching on Christianity, Southern politics, race, rural life, poverty, and, most especially, the bizarre nature of being human throughout.

For the uninitiated, O’Connor was an American writer who only published two collections of short stories and two novels (Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away). She writes what has been called Southern gothic fiction, set mostly in rural areas of America’s south, and often featuring irruptions of the extraordinary or magical. In “Parker’s Back,” Parker, a former Navy-man covered in tattoos who married a woman he does not love, has a revelatory experience when he crashes the tractor he is driving into an old tree in the middle of the field. The sight of the burning tree and tractor scares Parker so much that he immediately goes to a tattoo artist to have a Byzantine Christ portrait painted on his back. He believes that the accident was divine revelation and hopes that putting a religious tattoo on his back will propitiate God. He also hopes that his wife will be pleased, but when she sees it, she throws him out calling him an idolater for putting a picture of God on his back. While it would be easy to join the wife in ridiculing Parker, there is an earnestness in Parker’s response that prevents it. The final sentence of the story (“There he was – who called himself Obadiah Elihue – leaning against the tree, crying like a baby”) reveals a broken and defeated man. The central scene, the accident, is both realistic in the sense that it could have happened but also something else entirely because of the religious tones and epiphanic framing. O’Connor frequently uses these moments, leaving realism behind for a moment and then coming back to it.

The other thing that stood out for me in this collection was O’Connor’s ability to throw a twist in the endings. These are not cheap-tricks but key moments that force readers to re-examine everything that has come before. In “The Enduring Chill,” Asbury believes he is dying from a self-induced existential fever. Readers are invited to see through his self-delusion throughout, but in the final sentences, he has an epiphanic experience of the shape of a dove made in the cracks of the ceiling plaster morphing into the Holy Ghost descending on him. Asbury had invited a Jesuit priest over to spite his mother, but in this ending O’Connor suggests that something more spiritual has happened to him. While it might be easy to see these as imitation Edgar Allan Poe plot twists, they cannot be discounted.

I think it was these more than anything that made Everything a more enjoyable read than A Good Man. The characters of Everything are both despicable and lovingly crafted. We despise them and yet cannot help but see through their eyes. Simply put, Everything That Rises Must Converge is essential reading for any fan of short fiction.

I highly recommend this collection.

O’Connor, Flannery. Everything That Rises Must Converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965. Print.