My immediate response after finishing Peace like a River, a first novel by Lief Engle (2001), was that this was a book full of miracles, poetry, mystery, love, retribution and — did I mention — miracles and love. The narrative is told from the point of view of Reuben Land, an 11-year-old boy living with his 9-year-old sister Swede, older brother Davy and their dad Jeremiah in a small Minnesota town. Reuben had a difficult birth and did not breathe for the first 12 minutes, until his father took him in his arms and said “Reuben Land, in the name of the living God I am telling you to breathe.” And he did. Reuben tells us that it did not occur to him to wonder why he was allowed, after all, to breathe and to keep breathing. “The answer, it seems to me now, lies in the miracles.” Reuben, who struggles with asthma, knows that life is a gift and that his father has been touched by the hand of God and can overturn the laws of nature. When Davy shoots two intruders and is about to be sentenced, he breaks out of jail and takes off. Jeremiah, Swede and Reuben leave home in an Airstream trailer in an effort to find him, tracking him to the Badlands of North Dakota. Swede, age 9, is writing an epic poem, “Sunny Sundown Delivers the Payroll,” and verses set in the Old West in the meter of Robert W. Service and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” echo what is happening in their lives. Engle’s use of language evokes the spareness and beauty of the western landscape: “The fog lay rich and steamy over the barnyard…and it really did smell like April, though I noticed it also smelled like a wet dog; the two are not dissimilar.” The dust jacket notes that the book is “sprinkled with playful nods to biblical tales, beloved classics such as Huckleberry Finn, the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the westerns of Zane Grey” and language and a plot that make the book hard to put down.
Another debut novel, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011), deals with real magic and magicians. The author is a multimedia artist “who describes all her work as fairy tales one way or another” and it is certainly apparent that she sees the world through the eyes of an artist. The opening lines are “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts and billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not.” And not only does it appear magically, the circus takes place only at night. The tents are black and white striped, lots of creative lighting is used and, as with most circuses, there is a large cast of characters. The book may appear to be somewhat chaotic – like a three-ring circus — but it will sort itself out over time. The “bones” of the plot concern two magicians who compete against each other in a complex game with unwritten rules, using apprentices, the daughter of one magician in one case, and the winner is only determined by who outlasts the other. The daughter, Celia, observes that “It’s a stamina and control, not skill.” Her father replies, “It is a test of strength.” One of the complicating factors, aside from not knowing the rules until they break them, is that the two competitors fall in love. At the book’s conclusion the competing magician observes, “There are many kinds of magic, after all,” which in many ways sums up the book. It’s a flight of fantasy, “magic in a core of realism.”