"Swede said another thing, too, and it rang in me like a bell: No miracle happens without a witness. Someone to declare, Here's what I saw. Here's how it went. Make of it what you will."
Reuben is often the only witness to his father's miracles, so Swede's words have special importance to him. Reuben's relationship with his father is dominated by the idea of his father as a hero and witnessing Jeremiah's miracles allows Reuben to continue to think of his father as a hero. Swede's explanation of miracles also lends itself to the genre of magical realism, in which supernatural elements are incorporated into everyday life and presented as such.
“‘Look, Reuben. I want the same thing as you: Davy free and clear. If you like Mr. Andreeson better as an enemy, them keep him one. Maybe that’s your job as a boy – as a brother. My job is different.’”
When Jeremiah agrees to help Andreeson look for Davy, Reuben feels betrayed. This quote brings together several of the themes present in the novel: Reuben’s struggle with the balance of justice, his relationship with his father, and the fine line between boyhood and adulthood that Reuben crosses over many times. Here, it becomes evident that Reuben is being childlike in his characterization of Andreeson as the enemy, but as Jeremiah suggests, perhaps it is Reuben’s duty to remain loyal to Davy. Jeremiah, as an adult and a true believer in God, feels that he must work with Andreeson.
"It seemed like she never asked a question to which I had an answer."
Swede asks Reuben numerous questions about their father, their future, and Davy - all questions that Reuben has himself, but no answers. This quote exemplifies the uncertainty that the Lands faced when they chased after Davy; instead of knowing exactly where they were going, they left Roofing on faith alone. The quote also reveals one aspect of Reuben and Swede's relationship. The younger sibling pushes Reuben to think beyond the current events, whether by asking questions or dreaming up inventive stories.
"'You know how it is - you grow up with a story all your life, it can transmute into something you neither question nor particularly value. It's why we have such bad luck learning from mistakes."
Here, Reuben is revealing to Swede that he has seen Jeremiah perform miracles. The fact that his father brought him to life and levitated has become so engrained in his perception of his father that Reuben forgets how extraordinary his father's miracles are. This idea plays into the magical realism theme whereby supernatural elements are incorporated into the daily events of a novel such that they do not appear out of place.
"'Do you ever doubt it?' Davy asked.
And in fact I have. And perhaps will again. But here is what happens. I look out the window at the red farm - for here we live, Sara and I, in a new house across the meadow, a house built by capable arms and open lungs and joyous sweat. Maybe I see our daughter, home from school, picking plums or apples for Roxanna; maybe one of our sons, reading on the grass or painting an upended canoe. Or maybe Sara comes into the room - my darling Sara - with Mr. Cassidy's beloved rolls on a steaming plate. Then I breathe deeply, and certainty enters into me like light, like a piece of science, and curious music seems to hum inside my fingers. Is there a single person on whom I can press belief? No sir. All I can do is say, Here;s how it went. Here's what I saw. I've been there and am going back. Make of it what you will."
Reuben's reflection on the events that happened in his life and the doubt he has about their reality allow the reader to trust him. As a genre, magical realism depends upon the characters and the reader accepting supernatural events, like Jeremiah's miracles, as everyday occurrences. In part, Reuben's doubt in his own account of the events in his life allow for the reader to trust him as a narrator. Like a reader, he does not blindly accept his father's miracles and he casts his own doubts before deciding that they were real.
"On receipt of this intimate remark I suddenly understood what had been given me. Never before had I been with Dad's best and oldest friend, the beloved August Shultz, without Dad present. Nor had I been old enough to appreciate it - why, it hadn't been long since August referred to me as 'my little man.' Now here we sat together, in his dark kitchen, talking about foggy mornings."
August Shultz, Jeremiah's old friend whom the Lands are visiting, has just told Davy about the significance of foggy mornings in his life. They are the only two people awake in the house and they are able to form a bond because of it. This quote demonstrates the fine line between childhood and adult hood that Reuben seems to be on. He is only eleven years old, but the events following Davy's escape from jail greatly speed up the growing up process. He reflects on the fact that he is able to communicate in a new way with an adult he has known his whole life and in particular, he is able to learn more about his father, ever the mystery, from August.
"'In Little Women,' she said - see? - 'when Jo cut off her hair and sold it to pay for Marmee's train fare - you remember?' Well, of course I remembered. After the shearing Jo had gone home and stunned them all with her sacrificial present, the profit from her bounteous hair, her one beauty, as her sisters backhandedly put it. 'If Marmee had begged Jo to go cut off her hair and sell it,' Swede hypothesized, 'I wonder how heroic a thing it would have been.' I didn't say anything. But I thought: Aw, crumb."
Reuben earned $25 by taking down their neighbors’ corn crib when Jeremiah falls ill and the family is short on money. He dreams of using the money to buy a canoe or other toys for Christmas, but Swede brings him back to reality, politely forcing Reuben to spend the money on groceries instead. This quote shows Swede's love of literary references and that the younger sibling is often wise beyond her years. Reuben on the other hand, struggles with coming of age, but makes the right decision in the end.
"'Where do you think you're going?' Dr. Nokes demanded. I think he feared the sickness had touched the part of Dad's brain in charge of good sense. 'What do you have for directions?' he asked.
And Dad, eyebrows raised in delight with his forthcoming answer, said, 'I have the substance of things hoped for. I have the anticipation of things unseen.'"
This is an example of Jeremiah's faith: he believes that it will guide them to Davy. At this point in the novel the Lands have no indication of where Davy may be, but Jeremiah is determined to go after his oldest son. Dr. Nokes serves as the antithesis of Jeremiah in regards to faith: he is perplexed by miracles while Jeremiah accepts them freely and allows his faith to guide him.
"Let me say something about that word: miracle. For too long it's been used to characterize things or events that, though pleasant, are entirely normal. Peeping chicks at Easter time, spring generally, a clear sunrise after an overcast week--a miracle, people say, as if they've been educated from greeting cards. I'm sorry, but nope. Such things are worth out notice every day of the week, but to call them miracles evaporates the strength of the word."
Reuben's fascination with the miracles Jeremiah performs is a focal point of the novel. It is not that he merely witnesses the miracles, he truly believes in them and as the above quote illustrates, Reuben does not throw around the word miracle lightly. His deep examination in to the true meaning of the word allows the reader to put their trust in Reuben as a narrator because he has expressed doubt, but then moved beyond it.
"Waltzer leaned in. 'No, no. Make the attempt. Make up your mind and breathe.'"
On his first visit to Waltzer's cabin, Reuben begins to have difficulty breathing. Jeremiah is his usual caretaker and often takes the approach of comforting Reuben while he is distressed. Waltzer, the antithesis of Jeremiah, wants to force Reuben to breathe, as if it were that simple. In this case, Reuben knows to ignore Waltzer. Even though Waltzer is older, Reuben has more experience dealing with his own illness; he is young, but wise.
Peace Like a River Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Peace Like a River is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.