Chapter 6: When Sorrows Like Sea Billows Roll

Ten days before Davy’s trial the public support he has enjoyed begins to erode with a touching story in the Minneapolis Star called “A Victim’s Story.” It is written all about Tommy Basca, from his aunt’s point of view. She had called him Bubby and insists she was like a second mother to him. The story is hackneyed and asinine to anyone who really knew Tommy, but is has sway and soon the supportive letters begin to call Davy a butcher and a killer. Reuben wonders, “Do you think that poor Mrs. Basca could’ve guessed at the power of tragedy?” She has to have known that the public could be swayed by such sentiments and from the public comes the jury pool. In the meantime, Mr. DeCuellar cautions them to maintain a happy composure at work and to answer no questions.

Later, Dad is finally fired by Mr. Holgren. It takes place the elementary school cafeteria right before Thanksgiving. The children are all wearing pilgrim hats and when Mr. Holgren shows up - probably to make some brooding remarks about privation and death - he produces a pilgrim hat of his own. However, his poor face which oozes with terrible boils and the spiteful look in his eye just makes him seem sinister. To Reuben, it’s as if the Devil entered his room and started trying on his clothes. Mr. Holgren begins to tells the students his few words which Reuben doesn’t hear, because he notices that written in block letters near the squared off part of Mr. Holgren’s hat are the words, “Shoot Me!” He tries very hard not to laugh, calling that moment a lonesome place, but then, Peter Emerson whispers to him, “Bang!” and Reuben can’t hold it in any longer. He laughs so hard his sight goes dark. When he can finally see again, Mr. Holgren is coming after him. Unfortunately, for the older man, his thigh clips the edge of the table and sets all the milk bottles given to the children tipping over, falling on the floor and breaking.

Just then, his father appears, and Reuben instinctively fears for him, because a curse seems to be hovering in that room. However, his father is in his usual final humor, actually winking at Reuben with sheer delight on his face. He sets to work with a rag mop and a bucket while Mr. Holgren sees an opportunity to set an example. As Jeremiah works on his knees - like a slave - the superintendent bends over him and says, “Land, we have to talk.” The teacher tries to lead the children out of the cafeteria, but Mr. Holgren holds up his hand to stop her, because he wants everyone there to watch. He accuses Dad of drunkenness based on the stories of what had happened at the church. He also knows that Jeremiah Land will not defend himself within the hearing of the children. Nonetheless, Holgren demands an explanation to which Dad mutters something softly. This infuriates Holgren who then screams out at Dad that he is now a former janitor. The cruelty of that moment still impresses Reuben. He moves toward his father as if to comfort him when he sees Jeremiah lift his hand and touch Holgren’s face. The skin that has been filled with festering boils suddenly is smooth and healthy. Holgren covers his face and slinks from the room, while what his father has done makes Reuben mad enough to spit. He wonders what right his father had healing that evil man and allowing him to cross paths with the Great God Almighty.

The sight of this miracle makes Reuben fall into an asthmatic attack, and he is taken to the nurse’s office. When his father comes to take him home, Reuben refuses to go, not because he is ashamed of his father being fired and not even because he healed Mr. Holgren. Instead, Reuben is bitter, because the worst man Reuben has even known received a whole new face, while he has to breathe steam to stay alive.


This chapter where Reuben experiences his father’s humiliation and gracious use of his godlike powers to heal his tormentor is a learning one for Reuben. Unfortunately, what he learns is not what his father would have wanted him to learn. Reuben learns selfishness that he has not been healed. This perhaps reinforces his emphasis as narrator that he was kept alive to be a witness to the miracles his father performed and will perhaps carry on into the future.

The title again reinforces the point of the chapter - the sorrow which began with Davy’s shooting is rolling like dominoes, or in this case waves of the sea, over the family and Jeremiah’s hope that they will persevere is even more important.

Cite this page:

Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on Peace Like a River". . <% varLocale = SetLocale(2057) file = Request.ServerVariables("PATH_TRANSLATED") Set fs = CreateObject("Scripting.FileSystemObject") Set f = fs.GetFile(file) LastModified = f.datelastmodified response.write FormatDateTime(LastModified, 1) Set f = Nothing Set fs = Nothing %>