Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5: Peeking at Eternity


While studying medicine at a small school in Iowa, Jeremiah provided for his wife and one year old Davy by cleaning the athletic building on campus. Jeremiah is described as a promising student who gave up his education in order to be further absorbed in religion and the following event is the catalyst for Jeremiah’s dramatic change.

Unbeknownst to Jeremiah, a tornado approached the town as he cleaned Dewey Hall, the athletic building. Reuben’s mother protected Davy as best she could from the storm and they remained unscathed, but Dewey Hall was all but destroyed. Grief stricken, Reuben’s mother received a phone call a few hours later from a family four miles away saying that Jeremiah was at their kitchen table drinking coffee. Jeremiah describes his miraculous journey in a tornado as gentle and explains that he had to give up his studies to further understand this religious experience, much to his wife’s disappointment. Eventually, the rift between Jeremiah and the children’s mother became too big and she left, marrying a doctor in Chicago and starting a new life.

Davy is taken away in handcuffs placed in jail. The rest of the Lands visit him the following day, remarking how well adjusted he seems to be. Jeremiah only asks that Swede and Reuben persevere through this tornado. The children stay home from school as reporters gather in town and their once friends desert them. Davy handles the whole situation without much stress; the newspapers paint him as a protector and he receives lots of mail from girls praising his heroic deed.

Jeremiah returns to work and is handed one unpleasant task after another as a form of punishment from the principle. Reuben is grateful for the extra week off and Swede uses the time to work on her epic Western poem. Though she has been trying to kill off the villain of her poem, Valdez, she expresses her frustration that she has not been able to properly kill him - she has not yet found the correct way to rid the poem, and herself, of the villain.


The tornado emerges as an obvious symbol for change in chapter 5. Before being swept up in the tornado at age 28, Jeremiah was pursuing an intellectual life in medicine and it is clear from the tone that he was on the up and up to a prosperous life with a happy wife. After the tornado however, Jeremiah moves on from academia to further his connection to the religion. From the rest of Reuben’s narrative, Jeremiah does not appear to be completely swept up in religious pursuits, but he does have the remarkable ability to produce miracles and is a devote believer.

Reuben further makes the comparison between the physical tornado that changed his father’s life and the metaphorical tornado that is about to change his brother’s. Davy’s tornado - killing Israel Finch and Tommy Basca - is just beginning. Reuben’s acknowledgement of the similarities between his father’s experience in the tornado and Davy being brought to jail is both foreboding and foreshadowing of future events.

The Lands deal with Davy’s arrest differently; Davy is nonplussed, Jeremiah resorts to prayer, and Swede takes her anger out in the form of poetry. Swede, though only nine, is in the process of composing an epic poem and it is time that the villain of her story dies. However, she confesses to Reuben that she cannot properly kill off Valdez the villain.

Reuben takes her problem literally and cannot understand why she could not kill off Valdez when she had already written several possible and well-written endings. For Swede, Valdez is not just a villain on paper, he is the manifestation of Israel Finch and Tommy Basca - first destroying her innocence and then taking away her brother. By killing off Valdez, Swede hopes to get rid of her own demons, but it is not that simple. Even though Finch and Basca are dead, her memories of her kidnapping remain and her brother’s life is forever changed.