Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River Summary and Analysis of Chapters 20, 21, 22, and 23: The Ledger of Our Decisions, The Red Farm, Be Jubilant My Feet, and The Curious Music That I Hear


Reuben leads a group of men, including Roxanna’s neighbor, Lonnie Ford, the county sheriff, Mike Lanz, another federal investigator named Harper Juval, and a few local deputies, on a horse ride to find Waltzer’s cabin. Though he is not completely certain of his surroundings, Reuben leads them on, and he realizes that Mr. Ford who leases the land does not know where exactly there are on his property. Feeling guilty about ratting out Davy, Reuben purposefully misdirects the party at a critical juncture, leading them up a steep path away from the cabin.

When they are at the top of a precipice, Juval realizes that Reuben has misled them. On the way back down the slope, Lonnie Ford’s horse slips and both are severely injured. Ford asks them not to shoot his also injured horse, Billy. Juval confronts Reuben about leading everyone astray and Reuben turns to prayer to get him through the ordeal. In the end, they put Ford on another horse and Juval shoots Billy as they leave the site of the accident.

The narrative shifts back to Roofing where Jeremiah and Roxanna marry. They returned to roofing at the end of February after the search for Davy was unsuccessful and Reuben’s breathing deteriorated. They sold their house and bought a farm outside of town, dubbed the red farm. Reuben continues to wait for Davy and Andreeson, though they remain missing, as well as forgiveness from Swede. Eventually, the younger sibling forgives Reuben for not telling her about Davy. Reuben does not expect or wait for any miracles from the now happily married Jeremiah.

Later in June, Davy drives up to the red farm in a car with Sara. According to Davy, they had fled from Waltzer five days prior to their arrival in a car stolen from their captor. Davy knows he cannot stay at the red farm, but Roxanna offers to take in Sara and Sara happily agrees. They spend the rest of the night listening to Davy recount his entire journey from start to finish, knowing that he will need to leave early the next morning.

The following morning, everyone walks outside to say goodbye to Davy and they find Jape Waltzer sitting in a chair with a rifle waiting for them. No one sees him until he shoots Jeremiah. Roxanna tries to pull Reuben back inside the house, but the young boy feels compelled to go to his father. He falls to the ground, shot in the lungs, after running from the porch.

When Reuben wakes up he is no longer at the red farm. Instead, he is in a nameless meadow and without a care in the world. He walks through the meadow towards and orchard and attempts, unsuccessfully, to fly but he feels light nonetheless. As Reuben walks through the orchard he finds himself thinking of the origin of life according to the Bible, Adam. He sees a man wearing Spanish-style armor approaching him and Reuben is reminded of a verse he once heard, “O be quick, my soul, to answer Him; be jubilant, my feet!” (p. 302.) Reuben “answers” the man by running through the orchard, feeling alive.

When is further away from the orchard, Reuben notices another man running next to the nearby stream. He knows that the man is his father. They embrace joyously and feel like equals. They run together until they reach a mountain and climb to the top. They see people down below them and hear their voices singing hymns. Holding hands, Jeremiah asks Reuben to take care of Swede and to tell Davy – though he does not specify what to tell his eldest child. Jeremiah then jumps from the mountain ledge as if he were jumping into a pool of water.

While Reuben’s mind lies somewhere between the red farm and the afterlife, Waltzer continued to shoot at Davy and at the house. Roxanna called the sheriff and Dr. Nokes before tending to Jeremiah and Swede tended to Reuben. Davy had escaped in the car and Waltzer had escaped by other means, never to be seen again. Just as Dr. Nokes thought Reuben was gone, he breathed again. Weeks later, Dr. Nokes visits the recuperating Reuben. He explains that it is a miracle that Reuben survived and Jeremiah died – with their injuries, he would have expected the opposite outcome.

Skipping ahead in time, Reuben narrates each of the main characters’ futures. Roxanna takes over as caregiver and Sara remained at the red farm with her until she and Reuben reconnected and fell in love. Swede quit school at seventeen to be a writer and published several different well-known works. Later they found out that Waltzer had indeed murdered Andreeson in the Badlands. Davy moved to a small town in Canada where Reuben would occasionally visit him. The novel closes with Reuben description of his life with Sara at the red farm in a new house that he built, his breathing having become healthy after recovering from being shot.


In many respects, Reuben’s life comes full circle at the end of Peace Like a River. Several times throughout the novel, Jeremiah states that he wishes he could trade places with Reuben; when Reuben is the sole witness to Davy killing Israel Finch and Tommy Basca and when Reuben struggles with his breathing. In the meadow – a symbol for the place between life and death – Jeremiah is finally able to take Reuben’s place.

After Reuben survives the shooting and Jeremiah dies, Dr. Nokes remarks that with his wound to the lung, Reuben should have died and Jeremiah should have survived easily. By allowing Reuben to live, Jeremiah takes his son’s place in the afterlife, fulfilling his earlier wish.

Another way in which Reuben’s life comes full circle is the advent of his breathing returning to normal. After sustaining a life threatening gunshot wound to his lungs, Reuben makes a full recovery and his breathing greatly improves. It is symbolic that his father gave him his life, as Jeremiah’s first and last miracle were to command Reuben to live and Dr. Nokes was his doctor in both occurrences.

The tone in the last chapter shifts in maturity and it becomes clear that Reuben is narrating the story as an adult looking back on his past, rather than a child narrating events as they happen. As Reuben’s life comes full circle, the narrative does as well. In the beginning of the novel, Reuben gains the confidence of the reader by expressing his own disbelief in general miracles and by further explaining his definition of a miracle.

The novel closes with Reuben reflecting on the past and expressing his doubt about the events that occurred in the meadow to Davy. He ends with the previously said statement “Make of it what you will,” speaking directly to the reader and allowing the reader to reflect on the events of the novel alongside Reuben (p.311).