Peace Like a River

Peace Like a River Summary and Analysis of Chapter 9: By the Grace of Lurvy


Christmas is fast approaching and for Reuben and Swede, they know it will not be a splendid one full of presents. Instead, they anticipate it being more like the Christmases of the Great Depression Era that the adults in town always spoke of. With Jeremiah only finding occasional work cleaning chimneys, the children know that Christmas will be sparse but they dream of a Christmas in which Reuben gets the model Spartacus he wants and Swede gets the trip out West to find Davy.

Due the cold conditions of chimney sweeping, Jeremiah comes down with pneumonia. Dr. Nokes visits his ailing friend and advises that Swede should be the one to take care of Jeremiah. Though Dr. Nokes insists it is because Swede has the potential to become a doctor and needs to work on her bedside manner, Reuben knows that he must avoid his father so that he does not further damage his own lungs. When he goes into Jeremiah’s room to see his father later that week, Jeremiah asks Reuben if this is what he feels like all of the times with his swampy lungs and suggests that the high desert of New Mexico would be good for both of their lungs.

Instead of helping with Jeremiah, Reuben takes on a job from Mr. Layton at the urging of Dr. Nokes. Mr. Layton’s corncob in the back of his house needs to be torn down and it appears that Reuben is the person to do the job. Although he is often short of breath and struggles greatly with the manual labor, Reuben is cheered on and admired by a six-year-old boy named Raymond who lives nearby. He finishes the demolition in four days and Mr. Layton pays Reuben twenty-five dollars for the job.

Though they did not receive a Christmas card from their outlaw brother - Swede expected one for reasons unknown to Reuben - the two engross themselves in thinking about what they can buy with the money Reuben earned. They bounce around from a bicycle to a canoe to a telescope and Reuben even considers spending some of the money on Bethany Orchard. It is only when Jeremiah feels well enough to get out of bed that Reuben sees how thin his father has become and that they have no food in the house. To make a Christmas Eve feast, Reuben and Swede go out to buy groceries at the insistence of Swede.

A federal officer by the name of Andreeson stops by the house, urging Jeremiah to contact him if Davy writes or visits them. Andreeson and the other officials believe Davy has crossed state lines, possibly to go out West. The entire family immediately dislikes Andreeson and sends him on his way shortly after his arrival. To match Jeremiah’s stand against the federal officer in the name of Davy, Swede tells Reuben the story of outlaw Cole Younger not giving up one of his friends for a crime even as he faced death.

On Christmas Day Mr. and Mrs. DeCuellar stop by the house with a telescope for Reuben and new boots for Swede. Even better, Jeremiah is willed old Tin Lurvy’s airstream since he had died of a heart attack. The dream of pursuing high desert air and Davy no longer seems impossible.


Both Reuben and Swede mature tremendously in this section. The chapter begins with the two dreaming about what they want for Christmas - both want expensive presents that they know their family cannot afford. However, after earning the money himself and with some prodding from Swede, Reuben spends his twenty-five dollars on groceries so that the family can eat. Swede and Reuben show maturity in their decision to spend the money on what is needed, not what they want.

With Jeremiah sick and Davy gone, the responsibility of taking care of the house and family falls upon Reuben and Swede. Swede is tasked with caring for Jeremiah and nurses him back to health. Reuben is given a job and he completes it, much to his own surprise, and earns money for the family.

Reuben’s job to take down Layton’s corncrib is surprisingly difficult for Reuben. At first he is unsure of how to go about demolishing the structure and he is quite winded from the physical exertion. Eventually he finds his groove and even takes pleasure from the work. Raymond, Layton’s six-year-old neighbor, wanders over to the corncrib one day and spends hours watching and motivating Reuben. Reuben takes great pride in the encouragements from Raymond and by doing something good in the eyes of another; he is motivated to finish the project.

Dr. Nokes warns Reuben to avoid his father because the pneumonia would have far greater consequences on Reuben’s sickly lungs, but Reuben spends time with Jeremiah anyway. Jeremiah and Reuben connect over their swampy lungs even though Jeremiah’s are temporary. Instead of Reuben trying to understand his father, this interaction shows that Jeremiah is trying to understand his son. The role reversal makes Reuben the breadwinner in the family and the person with the most knowledge about swampy lungs. They also bond over the prospect of going to the high deserts of New Mexico where the air is supposedly clearer and easier to breath - a foreshadowing event of future travels.

The incident with federal agent Andreeson unites the Lands in their quest to help Davy. While Swede had been quick to suggest breaking her brother out of jail and Reuben had eventually agreed, Jeremiah had remained withdrawn throughout the entire debacle. The hostile warning Jeremiah sends to Andreeson is the first time that Jeremiah shows his loyalty to Davy since his disappearance.

Jeremiah’s stand for Davy is echoed in Swede’s story about Cole Younger. Younger is an outlaw already in jail and awaiting his hanging. The sheriff offers him immunity if he gives the name of the criminal who committed another crime. Younger is defiant and merely hands the sheriff a note with the words, “Be true to your friends - though the heavens fall!” Reuben is astounded by such loyalty and Younger’s act of camaraderie is symbolic of the Lands’ move to support Davy, no matter what happens.