When the Land family arrives home in Roofing, Minnesota, they find their front door tarred black from top to bottom. There is no doubt who the culprits are. Reuben is having trouble breathing because the air is thicker and warmer here and Swede is so sound asleep that she has to be carried to bed. Reuben is told to sit until Dad can help him. He and Davy are silent and businesslike because of the children and the door.
Reuben takes a moment at this point to explain how it feels to try to breathe while having an asthmatic attack. He compares it to a bellows which has a tiny air-born seed suddenly stick inside it and slowly you have to work a little harder to make it work. It becomes sponge-bound and the air couldn’t blow out the candle on a baby cake. The air gets close and sticky and you know that if you fall asleep the bellows will stop working completely. It occurs to Reuben that his father with his miraculous ability to walk on air should be able to fix his defective lungs. Instead, his dad brings boiling water on a pan and then on a cutting board and sets it on Reuben’s lap. He drapes a blanket over his head to allow his to breathe in the steam.
Dad realizes he can clean the sill of the door, but the door itself is a goner. It makes him stop and try to explain to Reuben how this all came about. Reuben is reluctant to hear about it, because he feels like more than their door has been defiled. Their home is defiled as well and their lives have changed as certainly as their cheerful green door has gone black. He tells his father that he knows about Dolly and those guys. Dad chuckles and says that now it’s Reuben’s chance to learn about the principle of escalation, just like in wars. He frames his locker-room skirmish as a composition on wartime ethics. Later, Reuben learns the details of the skirmish: Dolly had returned to the locker-room for a pair of shoes she had forgotten when she was trapped by Finch and Basco. Dad was in the boys locker-room when he hears the noise in the girls room. He knew that no one should have been in there at that hour and listened just long enough to hear another laugh and then a yelp. He unscrewed the head of his broom from the handle and headed for the girls locker-room. He found Dolly crouching in a corner and saw her take a Master padlock from one of the locker doors and heave it at Israel Finch to the left of his Adam’s apple. Reuben thinks it’s unfortunate that it only hits some capillaries instead of his jugular vein. However, Israel got up and while Tommy held Dolly, Israel began to slap and punch her. She got to the point where she was losing her strength and giving up when she saw Dad come through the door, glowing and serene just like you would imagine an angel to be. He began to swing the broom handle and the two boys didn’t even run, because they were so afraid of the being coming to punish them. As she watched Jeremiah Land beat the boys with his glowing face the only light in the room, Dolly began to laugh not only from relief but also from a reckless and holy sort of joy she had never felt. She is the witness this time to Jeremiah’s miracles. Of course, Israel cannot leave. Swollen and bruised as he is, without a parting threat that the two boys will be watching Jeremiah and his family.
Dad tells Reuben now that the tar on the front door is escalation. Reuben wonders what they should do back. Dad just laughs and says, “What those fellows don’t realize is, we’ve already won. The victory is ours.” (page 25) At Reuben’s blank look, he observes, “You don’t understand either, do you, son?” and puts the boy to bed.
Reuben soon puts the events of that night behind him as he settles into his normal routine. He struggles in school, but Swede wins even her math teacher’s favor by composing her epic poems. It is where she introduces a character named Sunny Sundown, a cowboy who fights the terrible Valdez, his mortal enemy. She fell in love with the West when she first began reading and loves Zane Grey and all the other western writers. Reuben loves the poem as well and follows her efforts to add to its exciting plot.
Unfortunately, it only took them until Wednesday to become a little careless. Davy and Swede decide to stay home while Dad and Reuben go to church. There is a new minister for the service named Reverend Johnny who begins by playing his trumpet and having the congregation sing many old hymns. Reuben becomes a little bored and leaves the sanctuary when he sees a girl he admires, Bethany Orchard, leave ahead of him. They go down into the church kitchen and decide to make pancakes. They miss Reverend Johnny’s sermon, but quickly run upstairs when they hear thumps overhead. Reverend Johnny has induced fervent reactions, such as falling into a stupor on the floor or talking in tongues. Even Jeremiah Land lies on the floor. Then, Reverend Johnny and the rest smell the pancakes the two children had made and he incorporates into his prayer, “. . . How gladly will I sit thee down in my banquet hall, for beauteous are the cakes therein . . .”
Reuben kneels at his father’s side with the thought of waking him up, but he asks himself, “How do you wake a man knocked cold by love?” Reverend Johnny touches Jeremiah and then places his hand on Reuben’s shoulder. Lights snap in Reuben’s eyes, his ears plug and then open, and a sudden easing in his lungs. The touch doesn’t feel good, but it feels powerful like the truth unhusked. Swede writes in later years in response to this memory, “Once torched by truth, a little thing like faith is easy.” (Page 33) Suddenly, his father awakes and sits up, telling Reuben in an urgent tone that they have to leave. They’ve stayed too long at the church.
Reuben now narrates how they reached the Plymouth and seemed to fly to home. At home the hard and escalating war has paid a visit, and it’s Swede how has met it at the door.
The return home brings on the war that began when Dad attacked Finch and Basco who had beaten Dolly. It’s called escalation, but when Dad says that the two boys don’t know that the Land family has already won, he’s pointing out that God is on their side no matter the outcome. This is also the chapter where Swede’s epic poem is introduced as a metaphor to what the family will experience as the plot unfolds. There is also another miracle when Dad falls into a divine ecstasy and realizes that there is trouble at home.
The title again is important in that it reflects the serious prayer that Reverend Johnny made when in the midst of people falling into religious ecstasy. It has a tinge of humor, but ultimately dark humor.
Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on Peace Like a River".
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