Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River Summary and Analysis of Chapter 6: When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll


The media turns on Davy. With the trial days away, suddenly all of the newspapers begin to paint Davy as the aggressor against poor, helpless Tommy “Bubby” Basca as Basca’s aunt Margery. Instead of love letters from girls, Davy receives hate mail addressed “Dear butcher” (p. 71). Even the inmate Davy shares his cell with, a thief named Mighty Stinson, takes pleasure in watching Davy’s downfall.

Mr. DeCuellar, Davy’s lawyer, is worried that all of the negative press will impact the jury; the jury is supposed to be impartial, but surely everyone has heard of the malicious Davy Land by now. During one visit to the Land’s house, Mr. DeCuellar explains to Swede how the existence of trial by jury is much more preferable to what the Saxon’s used to do in England: test for guilt by ordeal. To test someone for innocence of a crime, the suspect would have a red-hot iron touched to his hand. If he burned, he was guilty. Swede protests that no one could ever pass that test, but Mr. DeCuellar suggests that a few people were known to come away unscathed.

Jeremiah directs the conversation away from folklore and back towards the trial at hand. Mr. DeCuellar advises the Lands to stay away from reporters at all costs and to return to work with a “happy composure” (p.74). All three easily avoid reporters, but Jeremiah finds trouble at work in the form of one displeased superintendent, Mr. Holgren.

While Reuben is eating lunch with his classmates, Mr. Holgren accidentally knocks down a few bottles of milk, spilling it everywhere. Described as a man whose “every feature spoke of resentment and annoyance,” Mr. Holgren is out to get someone, anyone. Just then Jeremiah enters the cafeteria. Reuben is used to being mocked by his classmates for being the janitor’s son, but when Mr. Holgren approaches Jeremiah as he cleans up the broken milk bottles, Reuben sense that he will not be teased this time.

Reuben’s teacher tries to hurry the class out of the cafeteria to avoid the confrontation, but everyone moves too slowly. Mr. Holgren confronts Jeremiah and accuses the janitor of stumbling around and talking to himself. He says that there were two witnesses to his behavior and that Mr. Holgren himself has seen him passed out in church. Reuben is in disbelief that Mr. Holgren would accuse his father of being a drunk.

Watching his father get fired, Reuben sees his father’s meek verbal response followed by a slap to Mr. Holgren’s face. Mr. Holgren’s face, which is usually a horrible red color and covered in a thin layer of sweat, is transformed into a more normal color and relaxed state. Reuben feels very strongly that it is unfair that a horrible man like Mr. Holgren be healed by his father and “cross paths with the Great God Almighty” (p.80).

Jeremiah is at peace with losing his job and even makes a small joke in hopes of distracting Reuben from his thoughts. Reuben does not agree with his father; he cannot comprehend how someone so ungrateful as Mr. Holgren gets a new face while he, the son of a miracle worker, struggles to even breath with his asthma.


Echoing the previous chapter’s allusions to parallels in Jeremiah and Davy’s lives, both find themselves in unfortunate situations. The negative press towards Davy has unfortunate timing for the boy on trial, because it is unlikely that anyone on the jury will ever truly be impartial and the bad press so close to the trial start date will be fresh in the juror’s minds.

Jeremiah loses his job in a way that is humiliating and frustrating for both Jeremiah and Reuben. In previous chapters, it is clear that Jeremiah is a heroic figure to Reuben - he brought him to life as an infant and continues to work miracles in his presence, but his firing shows a different side to Jeremiah and Reuben’s relationship. As he watches his father be belittled by Mr. Holgren, Reuben feels anger at the superintendent and the usual shame that comes along with being the janitor’s son. The event is the first time that Reuben is not in complete wonder of his father’s miracle working and suggests a shift in their relationship.

When Jeremiah slaps Mr. Holgren, he heals the superintendent’s face. Reuben describes his father’s firing and Mr. Holgren’s apparent success as unfair. The idea of justice is a major theme throughout the novel. There is the justice system that is willing to hold Davy accountable for his actions, but Reuben also notes a societal justice system - the system in which the media publically judges Davy, and in which his father is unjustly fired.

The Saxon idea of “trial by ordeal” is an apt comparison to the societal judgment that Reuben feels is raining down upon his family. In the Saxon era in England, those accused of crimes could be tried by ordeal instead of by jury. The ordeal would be to place a hot iron onto the suspect’s hand; if their skin burned, then they were guilty. It can be argued that the Lands are experiencing their own ordeals - Jeremiah’s firing, Davy’s trial, and Swede’s kidnapping. In time, they will find out if the hot iron burns them.

When Mr. DeCuellar is explaining the trial by ordeal to Swede and Reuben, Swede suggests that no one would have been able to not be burned. At Swede’s proclamation, DeCuellar turns to Jeremiah. The moment is important for two reasons. First, it suggests that Mr. DeCuellar may understand Jeremiah’s unique skillset as a miracle worker and second, it is foreshadowing. It is not yet clear whether the Lands will survive their trial by ordeal, but DeCuellar seems to have faith in Jeremiah and suggests that not all of those who were subjected to the hot iron were burned. In other words, there is still hope for the Land family.