Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River Summary and Analysis of Chapter 2: His Separate Shadow


Reuben counts the resumption of his breathing as his father’s first miracle, the fact that he did not suffer any brain damage to his second, and the third to be his father’s brief levitation on their hunting trip. Jeremiah takes Reuben, Swede, and Reuben’s older brother Davy back to his hometown in North Dakota for a hunting trip on his old friend August Shultz’s land. Reuben and Swede huddle and sleep under blankets for warmth in the back seat of the car while Davy and Jeremiah sit up front and not speaking to each other for reasons not yet known to Reuben.

Out in the cold, open fields Reuben follows Davy’s lead while Swede sticks with Jeremiah. Thinking he is still too young to hunt like Davy, Reuben falls asleep and is only awoken when Davy spots a lone goose. As the goose approaches, Davy suddenly hands Reuben the gun. Shocked by the recoil and adrenaline rush of shooting the gun, the goose almost gets away but Reuben shoots him down at the last minute.

Instead of Reuben chasing after his fallen goose, Swede sprints away to get the bird. Reuben is once again an observer of the world around him; his father falls to the ground laughing at the crazy way that Swede chases after the goose. In a surprising turn of events the goose rears up and chases after Swede. Davy saves Swede from the enraged goose when he snaps the bird’s neck.

Although Davy offers to skin the goose, Reuben feels that he must do it: “‘I shot him. I’ll clean him.’ I had no urge to actually gut the bird, but I was eleven and a hunter now - a man just beginning his span of pride” (p. 9). Swede stays by Reuben’s side as he cleans the bird, asking for forgiveness because she ran away from the goose. Reuben does not fully understand why Swede would need forgiveness - he would have done the same thing - but with his forgiveness comes a new conversation about the distance between Davy and their father.

Swede explains that while Davy was sleeping the other night, she had overheard Jeremiah talking. As the high school’s janitor, Jeremiah had caught two of the town’s bullies, Israel Finch and Tommy Basca, beating up Davy’s girlfriend, Dolly, in the girls’ locker room. Jeremiah scared off the boys and Dolly was mostly unharmed, so both Reuben and Swede remain perplexed as to why Davy would be mad at their father. Though Reuben and Davy are only five years apart, Reuben is afraid to approach his brother for an explanation because Davy suddenly feels much older.

Davy does not join them for pancakes or the nap, but he pairs up with Reuben again for the afternoon hunt. Before they crawl towards the geese, Davy confronts Reuben about the Dolly situation. Reuben is honest with his brother and Davy explains that Finch and Basca threatened their father after the incident. Knowing how dangerous the two teens are, Davy warns Reuben to stay alert but to not tell Swede because the information might scare her.

Still on a high from his morning shoot, Reuben is disappointed when the Canada geese are out of shooting range in the afternoon. He is surprised by his disappointment, reflecting that his shot in the morning had been unexpected but had given him the courage to feel like a hunter. Only Davy is able to pick off a lone goose that strayed from the gaggle. Reuben sees his own naivety and lack of experience in the way that Davy skillful takes down the goose.

Nighttime is freezing cold. Reuben and Swede talk under a pile of blankets, resuming their conversation about Davy and Dolly, before Swede heads back to her room. Waking from a horrible nightmare about crossing a river and finding a dead horse, Reuben realizes that he has to use the outhouse. Though he would normally be frightened to go outside at midnight, he decides that the walk will be a break from the nightmare.

Outside of the house, Reuben finds his father pacing in the bed of a pickup truck. Reuben observes his father’s chanting - most likely prayers - and hears his own name. Not wanting to interrupt, Reuben stays quiet and observes his father. Jeremiah walks to the end of the flatbed, but instead of falling the three feet to the ground, he continues to walk on air. Reuben is stunned into silence and the uncomfortable feeling of a miracle settles in his stomach. When his father is back on the flatbed, Reuben dashes to the outhouse.


Some of the Land family dynamics are revealed in the second chapter. There is the mysterious tension between Jeremiah and Davy that leaves the younger siblings confused and feeling left out. Indeed, Reuben remarks several times that he feels too young to properly communicate with Davy, only five years his senior, and implicitly, his father.

The hunt and specifically, Reuben being allowed to shoot down the goose, is symbolic of his coming of age. At only 11, Reuben thinks that he is too young for hunting and his surprised when Davy hands over the gun. Reuben’s emotions are described in vivid detail and fluctuate between pride and panicky fear, as one might expect of a young boy. Reuben’s unexpected and bold emotions are contrasted with the narrative style that is deeply reflective.

Critics have argued that Enger’s narrator is too serious and too adult to truly be an eleven-year-old boy. Perhaps the narrative comes from a boy wise beyond his years, or perhaps the reflection comes from an older Reuben reencountering his childhood. Regardless, it is clear that Reuben walks the fine line between childhood and adulthood, crossing back and forth between the two as only an eleven year old can.

Contrasting Reuben’s adulthood dilemma is Swede’s interaction with the goose. When Reuben shoots the goose, Swede eagerly chases after the downed bird in a childlike willingness to participate. Swede is unable to appreciate the audacity of her actions, unlike Reuben, and she is genuinely surprised when the goose turns on her. Later, she feels the need to ask Reuben for forgiveness for her reckless actions and she is embarrassed that she ran away from the goose instead of facing it as Reuben had done.

Jeremiah’s third miracle is the first that Reuben experiences on his own. Watching his father levitate, Reuben is both stunned and in awe. It is ironic that Reuben feels scared by the nightmare that he was having moments before, but he is not scared by the warped reality before him. Reuben senses the unnatural elements around him as his father walks on air, but they do not scare him.