A brief excerpt from Peace Like a River

"It decided to kill me," she said.From where we stood, though, all we saw was the goose raise its wings and poke its beak at Swede. She spun, slipped to one knee, then was up and shutting the distance between us. The terrifying part, for her, must've been glancing back and seeing that goose coming after her just as hard as it could, wings spread, its black beak pointed at her rump.Dad was laughing so hard he was bent clear over and finally had to sit down on a gunnysack, wiping his eyes. Swede led the bird straight toward us, and when she pounded past, Davy leaned over and snagged it just behind the head. A quick twist and he handed it to me, wings quivering. He grinned. "All yours, Natty" -- after Natty Bumppo, Mr. Fenimore's matchless hunter. It was a heavy goose. I realized I was warm, standing there with my mitts off, even hot. I held my goose with one hand and Davy's Winchester in the other, smelling gunpowder and warm bird, feeling something brand-new, and liking it quite a bit. Swede, though, was crying, her face in Dad's belly, even while he laughed helplessly on.

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Community Rallies Around "Peace Like a River"

Leif Enger's Award-Winning Novel Comes to Life in Many Ways
Peace Like a River began life as a novel of modest expectations according to its author, Leif Enger. In the beginning he was writing for himself a story that he'd been mulling over for some time. - A story whose completion was five years in the making.

"I wrote a series of mystery novels with my brother Lin about a former major-league ballplayer who's gone into reclusive retirement in the north woods," said Enger. "We wrote six novels, published five, and stopped from exhaustion and sinking hopes." They never found the audience both had hoped they would. With that disappointment in mind as he worked on his new novel, he didn't plan for commercial success.

"I figured since I had given commercial writing my very best shot, I was free to just write something that I could read to my wife and kids. When I finished a scene I would gather them around and read it to them, and if it didn't make them laugh or if it didn't provoke some strong reaction, I knew I had to go back to the drawing board."

It was their reactions that fueled his writing and rewriting. "What I wanted to do," he said, "and what I think I did is just put everything that I love into it. I didn't think about the book commercially until I was over half done and I realized the book was going to have an end." It was at the urging of his wife Robin that Enger that he sought a wider audience, and got himself an agent.

"I picked an agent at random from the beginning, one from the end, and one from the middle." Of the three, two were interested, and the book began its journey. Within a week it had been sold to Grove Atlantic, who published the book in the summer of 2001.

Last year it won numerous awards including winning the Independent Publisher Book award for Fiction. It was the number one pick on the Booksense 76 list for 2 months in the fall of 2001 ultimately being awarded the BookSense Book of the Year, and has been optioned for film. With glowing reviews, numerous awards for the novel, and Enger himself being lauded, he has managed to continue to be realistic about the success of the book, his craft and his future.

Since breaking onto the book-buying horizon, Peace like a River has reached hundreds of thousands of people, but those numbers have grown recently through community and state initiatives aimed specifically at readers. These community-wide reading programs may be the most exciting movement on the literary scene today. The movement was started in 1998 by a Seattle librarian named Nancy Pearl, and has spread across the country to Chicago, Buffalo, Palm Springs and a wealth of other communities. They have seen continued success in every community that has taken on the challenge. One of those cities was Traverse City, MI, the home of Independent Publisher Online magazine and the IPPY Awards.

Traverse City Reads was initiated by the area's district library and a small group of individuals led by ForeWord magazine publisher Victoria Sutherland. They found the perfect mixture of elements that would appeal to many readers in Peace Like a River. They liked the idea that it was a first novel by an independent author who was praised by many critics for his lyricism and narrative. Also it dealt with questions people could identify with: family, love, vengeance, spiritualism, faith and for those in Traverse City a Midwestern mentality not far removed from most.

Set in rural Minnesota and the badlands of North Dakota, the story is narrated by Reuben Land, the elder persona if the 11 year-old asthmatic who is the main character. It's about Reuben's father, a high school janitor who has been given the gift of performing miracles, his poetry-writing 9 year-old sister Swede, and his 16 year-old brother Davy, who becomes an outlaw after shooting two boys who abducted and sexually abused Swede and then broken into the Land home.

After Davy breaks from jail, Reuben and his family set out to find him, what results are a series of events that move toward understanding and redemption.

Traverse City Reads was kicked-off by official proclamation from the Traverse City mayor. During the months of November, December and January, books were made available in large numbers through bookstores and libraries throughout the region. Junior and senior high school teachers placed it on their reading and discussion lists, and book clubs across Northwest Lower Michigan were encouraged to read and discuss the novel. Pins were made available so people would recognize other readers, and conversations ranged across all manner of questions the book raised, from the coffee shops to laundromats to grocery checkout lines. Everything culminated in a week's worth of activity with the author.

That's where I came into the picture. I currently serve as the vice-president and chair of the artistic board of the Old Town Playhouse in Traverse City, one of Michigan's largest and oldest community theatres. As such, a request was brought to me to somehow involve the Playhouse in the events being coordinated for the final week of the first Traverse City Reads. In discussion with other members of the theatre and the executive director, it was determined that a staged reading of Peace Like a River be presented. It was the final event of the week and would include a discussion with the author at the end of the evening.

The novel needed to be scripted and edited for this particular format, and that rather formidable task fell to me, since I already had more than passing familiarity with the novel as an adjudicator for the IPPY Awards and editor. With two months to go the task seemed less daunting than I originally thought. However that impression was erroneous. Attempting to create a 50 minute reader's theatre piece demanded much time and care for Enger's words: How to build the dramatic tension, choose which segments to excerpt, and what not to tell the audience in an effort to leave them wanting more, challenging them to read or reread. I have to admit I approached the project with some trepidation fearing I would carve up too much of Enger's wonderful world and the lyricism that created it.

Then there was casting the roles of the readers. With an active youth theatre I was able to find three young people to portray Reuben, Swede, and Davy. I asked some of the regular actors from the Playhouse to portray the adults. One of those actors is also a journalist and adjudicator for the IPPY Awards, Nancy Sundstrom, whose strong recommendation carried Peace Like a River into the winner's circle last year. I would narrate as the elder Reuben. The premise was simple: let the words and the voices carry the evening, and hope that Enger was not horrified by the cuts and excerpts.

He was not. In fact he was effusive in his praise regarding the effort to bring different voices to the task of imagining his work in another light. I was buoyed by the reaction of both he and his wife, and was grateful to have played a part in the Traverse City Reads project. When asked how he felt about the edits, smiling he said, "I only wish I had made some of them myself."

Later he would comment graciously about the other actors. "The young girl who read," he said, "she is Swede." Margaret Parsons is her name, and she is a cherubic, freckle faced strawberry blonde whose hair though pulled back and tied tends to frizz. Enger said, "She was who I saw in my mind. What wonderful casting." After his comments to the audience, he met with the actors, attentive to each.

He expressed his dismay and wonderment at the turnout he had received since arriving in the city. Reservation requests for events required changes to larger venues and even those became overbooked with standing room only. Readings, interview, and signings occupied him all week. Here though, he was the invited guest of honor. We performed for him. We were flush with the excitement of the evening and the book that brought us to this place. In an odd way it had the feeling of a command performance, with Traverse City publishing royalty in attendance including: Doug Stanton, journalist turned best-selling author of In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of its Survivors, and his wife Ann, also a local journalist, Joyce Harrington Bahle, the personal assistant for poet and author Jim Harrison.

Enger and his wife felt that flush too. Here he felt that the book had come to life in a different way. "There were times during the reading when he just squeezed my hand and I could tell how much this meant to him," said Robin. "I will always have the best memories of those times as he was working on the book, because it was so intimate, something just the four of us were sharing. Now, so many people have embraced the book and have taken to it the way we did. For Leif to hear it read aloud in this way, with so many wonderful people around him who were there to express their thanks and appreciation is such a beautiful thing. This has all been incredibly moving."

Enger himself echoed his wife's sentiments in his comments following the staged reading, and again later that night, at an after-glow reception. He remains humble, and grateful for his success. When asked if he believes in miracles, his answer is a simple, "Yes." What did he think of the response to his work in Traverse City and elsewhere? "It's like an odd knock at the door. We opened it, and there lay a candlelit banquet."

But his praise went far beyond anything we did that evening. It went out to all the people that made Traverse City Reads and its various events happen and kept a community enraptured for three months. He ended the evening with this announcement when asked how many books he had sold: "I don't really know, but my wife, Robin, informed me today that my book has just entered the New York Times [paperback] bestseller list at number 15. I'd like to think it's thanks to the book buyers and readers of Traverse City."


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