Peace Like a River begins with the protagonist, Reuben Land, narrating his dramatic birth. Born in September of 1951 at Wilson Hospital to Jeremiah and Helen Land, Reuben explains that his lungs were not working properly when he was born.
Though his father was outside getting some air at the moment that Reuben was born, Jeremiah Land insists that God told him something was wrong with his newborn son so he ran into the hospital. He returned to the delivery room to find his wife in hysterics and Dr. Nokes explaining that his son had been without air for twelve minutes. Dr. Nokes tries to dissuade Jeremiah from telling Reuben to breath, but Jeremiah persists and Reuben obeys.
Reuben takes a pause in his narrative to reflect upon this occurrence. He says that his father’s actions on the day of his birth forced him to always think of Jeremiah as a hero, a miracle worker. When Reuben refers to the word miracle, he clarifies that he does not mean it in the pedestrian sense of a beautiful sunset or springtime. He refers to events as miracles only when they truly deserve the title: something that makes people uncomfortable, or something that “contradicts the will of the earth” (p. 3).
Reuben goes on to introduce his sister, Swede, as an individual full of wise words. She considers the importance of miracles and emphasizes that miracles do not happen if there is no one to witness them. Reuben explains that his father bringing him back to life as a newborn is not the only miracle his father has performed, but that Reuben has often been the only witness to his father’s other miracles.
Though the first chapter is short, it introduces several important characters and themes in the novel. Reuben, the protagonist, is surprisingly insightful such a young narrator. He is able to both explain his experiences and the effects these experiences have had on his life. Reuben introduces his father as a miracle worker, though Reuben is often the only witness to such miracles.
More importantly, Reuben is able to reflect upon the fact that his father’s determination to bring Reuben to life has forced his father into a heroic position for Reuben. The narrator goes on to explain that he is often the only witness to his father’s other miracles. Whether this is because Reuben is truly a witness to miracles or because the miracles are manifestations of seeing his father as a hero is yet to be determined.
In the same breath that the author introduces the idea of miracles, Reuben dispels the idea of the miracles not being real. Reuben’s skepticism of all miracles being the same has two functions. First, it gives the reader a solid definition of a miracle and acts as a reference for the rest of the novel. Second, and more importantly, Reuben’s skepticism and conviction allows the reader to trust Reuben as a narrator.
Magical realism, a genre of literature in which supernatural elements are woven into an ordinary plot line, relies upon the idea that the magical elements are treated as everyday occurrences. In order for the reader to accept Jeremiah Land’s miracles, Reuben must convey them as something that he holds to be true without hesitation, such as the fact that the sky is blue. By introducing Reuben as a reliable narrator, Enger is able to incorporate magical elements into an ordinary plot.