The novel opens with the narrator - Reuben Land - being born. He says that from the very beginning all he wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with. (pg. 1) Unfortunately, when he was born in 1951, to Jeremiah and Helen Land, his lungs refused to work. His father was pacing outside Wilson Hospital when, as he tells the story later, God told him Reuben was in trouble. It was such a tragedy in the making that Dr. Nokes, who delivered him, still had nightmares about it. When his father entered the room at a dead run, Dr. Nokes was comforting his mother and he lay uncovered on a steel tray, beginning to cool, like a little clay boy. His father commanded him to breathe while the doctor insisted that he had been dead for more than twelve minutes. Even if he started breathing now, he would have brain damage. However, Jeremiah Land wasn’t ready to give up. He wrapped Reuben’s little body in his own jacket as Dr. Nokes tried to stop him with the words that we have to trust in the Almighty to do what is best. At this, Jeremiah struck the doctor with a right hand so that he went down hard. Then, his father turned back to the baby and said in a normal voice, “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.” (pg. 3)
The story of his birth only ever entered his thoughts when Reuben used it to impress his classmates. Otherwise, it wasn’t until later events that it occurs to him to wonder why he was allowed to breathe and keep breathing. Now he believes that the answer lies in miracles - an idea that has nothing to do with anything that’s normal, but instead with events which bother people and rebut every rule we all take comfort in. They contradict the will of earth. Reuben also asserts that no miracle happens without a witness and that miracles sometimes flowed from his father’s hands with no other witness than him. That’s why he now believes that he was allowed to live with no brain damage after twelve minutes without oxygen - to be a witness to miracles that were no cute things, but a swing of a sword. Now if his father were to begin the account, Reuben thinks he will say just as he did on the worst night of their lives, “We and the world, my children, will always be at war. Retreat is impossible. Arm yourselves.” (pg. 4) (war motif).
The motif of miracles begins with the birth of Reuben Land. The dramatic events, that include his father striking the doctor, are a foreshadowing of Reuben’s role of witness. His assertion, that miracles are never miracles without a witness, prepares the reader for momentous events that occurred when he was eleven years old. Now, as an adult, he lays down the account of his family’s discovery that there are indeed miracles.
Some important motifs are introduced in this chapter: miracles and the idea of war and battles.
The title of the chapter is also important to note. He tells us his father described him as a little clay boy, which is reminiscent of God’s creation of Adam. Like God who made Adam from clay and blew air into him, Jeremiah Land blew air and life into his motionless, clay-like son as well.
Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on Peace Like a River".
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