A River of Grace

5 11 2008

Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River tells the story of Jeremiah Land, a custodian at a local school.  He has been known to perform miracles from time to time, including one which brought healing to his son Reuben. Jeremiah lives with his three children: 16-year-old Davy, 11-year-old Reuben, and 9-year-old Swede.  The novel is written from the perspective of Reuben Land who, as an adult, reflects on his family in 1962 Minnesota and the events that altered the path of their lives. Reuben reveals his father to be a quiet gracious man who is humble and gentle and has been given  a gift which he uses not for himself but for others.

The novel takes a dark turn when Davy kills two teenage thugs who invade his family’s home. It isn’t long before the whole community turns on the Lands, especially the school superintendent—Jeremiah’s boss—Chester Holgren. Mr. Holgren is a nasty man with a diseased face. Young Reuban, the story’s narrator, describes Mr. Holgren as “a man whose face was a minefield of red boils.” He adds: “I hated him, I’ll admit, and would soon hate him more, but a person had to feel sorry about this face. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried a dish called tomato pudding. It’s cooked soft and is ever so red and lumpy.”

Mr. Holgren does whatever he can to make Jeremiah’s life miserable, eventually firing Jeremiah for false accusations of drunkenness. The firing takes place in the school cafeteria in front of all the children. Here’s how Reuban describes the scene:

“I left my milling classmates and headed for Dad, where he stood in rapt surprise facing Holgren. I hadn’t in mind to say anything, and indeed I didn’t; for as I approached Dad lifted his hand, sudden as a windshift, touched Holgren’s face and pulled away. It was the oddest little slap you ever saw. Holgren quailed back a step, hunching defensively, but Dad turned and walked off. The superintendent stood with his fingers strangely awonder over his chin, cheeks, and forehead. Then I saw that his bedeviled complexion—that face set always at a rolling boil—had changed. I saw instead skin of a healthy tan, a hale blush spread over cheekbones that suddenly held definition; above his eyes the shine of

constant seepage had vanished, and light lay at rest upon his brow.

 

Listen: There are easier things than witnessing a miracle of God. For his part, Mr. Holgren didn’t know what to make of it; he looked horrified; the new peace in his hide didn’t sink deep; he covered his face from view and slunk from the cafeteria.

 

I knew what had happened, though. I knew exactly what to make of it, and it made me mad enough to spit.

 

What business had Dad in healing that man?

 

What right had Holgren to cross paths with the Great God Almighty?

The story of Jeremiah and Mr. Holgren is fiction, of course. But in the real world, Christian mercy is a miracle of sorts. It is two miracles! It takes a miracle of God to show that kind of mercy, and it is a miracle to be touched by such mercy.

 

 

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