Cowboys and wonders

A boy's story of the year his brother fled into the N. Dakota Badlands

"Peace Like a River" opens with the narrator's stillbirth. "My lungs refused to kick in," Reuben writes in a moment that's at once terrifying and reassuring. While the doctor mumbles platitudes and his mother wails, Reuben's father senses that something's wrong. He sprints across the parking lot, back into the hospital, up into the room, and punches the doctor to get to his limp son. "Reuben Land," he commands, "in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe."

How wonderful that the word "inspiration" refers to filling the lungs with air and the soul with motivation. This first novel by Leif Enger draws its life from that holy pun. It's a rich atmosphere of adventure, tragedy, and healing that will make you breathe faster and deeper.

Reuben tackles skeptics in the first scene: "Real miracles bother people," he writes, "like sudden pains unknown in medical literature. It's true: They rebut every rule us good citizens take comfort in.... A miracle contradicts the will of earth. My sister, Swede, who often sees to the nub, offered this: people fear miracles because they fear being changed - though ignoring them will change you also."

What follows is the remarkable story of Reuben's 11th year. He lives with his precocious younger sister, his strong-willed older brother, Davy, and their saintly father in a small Minnesota town in the early 1960s.

Their mother abandoned them years before, probably out of frustration that her husband, Jeremiah, had no worldly ambition. Seen only through the lens of his son's adulation, the end of that marriage is difficult to explain, but we know it went bad soon after a life-threatening accident transported Jeremiah in more ways than one.

Now, he cares for his children with quiet devotion and works at the public school as a janitor. Looking back at those years, Reuben confesses some moments of shame about his father's vocation, but he's bursting with wonder to tell about the events he witnessed in their home.

Despite his humble life, Jeremiah commands powers that stem from his profoundly active faith. "He had laid up prayer as if with a trowel," Reuben writes. Hours spent reading the Bible and talking with God allow him to effect sudden cures, stretch small meals, and even, in one of the book's most gorgeous scenes, walk above a field of thistles. The style isn't so much "magical realism" as "spiritual realism."

I know what you're thinking: It has a kind of clammy "Touched by an Angel" feel. But it's saved by Reuben's raw honesty and the novel's bracing vitality. "A miracle is no cute thing," he writes, "but more like the swing of a sword." So is Reuben's voice - slicing away the sweet fat that could have made this story nauseating.

Trouble breaks into their lives when Jeremiah interrupts some young thugs trying to rape his son's girlfriend. He beats them pretty savagely with a broomstick, and in the process incurs the wrath of a couple of characters who scare even the local police.

Unfortunately, they don't scare his older son, who remains a heroic silhouette throughout the novel. Davy picks up the challenge where his father won't and continues to feud with his girlfriend's assailants. Acts of vandalism lead to acts of kidnapping, then assault, and finally murder.

Davy's arrest splits the town. Few openly sympathize with the late thugs, but many are quietly pleased to see pious Jeremiah taken down a step or two. Davy's siblings, however, are unwavering in their devotion. The morning of the trial, before Swede and Reuben can implement their ludicrous plan to break Davy from jail, he escapes on his own.

It's a foolish, illegal move, of course, but beyond that, it's a rejection of his father's faith. Davy loves his dad, but he finds the concept of an omnipotent God as claustrophobic as the cell. "Davy wanted life to be something you did on your own," Reuben writes. "The whole idea of a protective fatherly God annoyed him."

Guided only by Jeremiah's prayers, the family sets out into the Badlands of North Dakota, searching for Davy, eluding the police, and nursing Reuben through increasingly severe attacks of asthma. The romantic Western tone of this quest is stirred and even satirized by the epic poem Swede writes along the way about a brave cowboy who wrestles with outlaws and the law:

The blizzard shipped in from the west like a grin

On a darkened, malevolent face,

And the posse that sought Mr. Sundown was caught

In an awfully dangerous place.

That a 9-year-old composes this poem is perhaps the book's most challenging miracle, but like so many other unlikely details here, Reuben forces us to believe with the power of his disarming exuberance. You can't help but resonate with the delight he takes in this story.

Enger has written a novel that's boldly romantic and unabashedly appealing, a collage of legends from sources sacred and profane - from the Old Testament to the Old West, from the Gospels to police dramas. But Reuben's search for his brother is ultimately the search to understand the nature of a father's miraculous love. It's a journey you simply must not miss.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.

Peace Like a River

By Leif Enger Atlantic Monthly Press 313 pp., $24

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