"From my first breath in this world, all I wanted was a good set of lungs and the air to fill them with; given circumstances, you might presume, for an American baby of the twentieth century."
That's the first sentence Leif Enger wrote in a private struggle to empathize with his oldest son's fitful asthma attacks, a literary exorcism for a very literal family crisis.
"It was frightening watching him gasp for air," Enger said. "I just wanted to get a handle on what he was going through."
Six years and 320 pages later, that simple sentence grew into "Peace Like A River," a captivating novel of faith and family adventure will be released in September by Atlantic Monthly Press.
While his son's asthma is now under control, Enger's personal life has the potential to become unruly, considering the promising commercial success of the book.
So far, he's received a $150,000 advance for its North American publishing rights along with a Book-of-the-Month Club main selection, a Reader's Digest select edition condensed book and a six-week, 25-city book signing tour beginning in mid-September.
Hollywood producer David Brown ("Jaws," "Driving Miss Daisy," "Chocolat") optioned screen rights for the novel, which has also been sold to publishers in eight other countries. Already it's received a starred review from Booklist and Publishers Weekly, while Harper Collins will release an audiobook as hardbacks hit the stores.
"It's starting to get busy around here," said Enger, who lives in a remote 56-acre farmstead in the Brainerd lakes area with his wife Robin and sons Ty and John. "But I'm sure my family will keep my feet on the ground. My priority is to guard our privacy."
"Peace Like A River" is the first-person account of an 11-year-old asthmatic boy named Reuben Land describing a series of adventures, tragedies and, yes, miracles that envelop his family in the winter of 1962.
Set in the mythical Minnesota town of Roofing, the story revolves around Reuben's widowed father, Jeremiah Land, an unambitious yet devout school janitor with some astonishing New Testament skills.
While nursing Reuben's asthma attacks and oblivious to his 9-year-old daughter Swede's searching literary precocity, Jeremiah suffers his own convulsive battles with faith. Then the family's fragile equilibrium shatters when Jeremiah's oldest son Davy, 16, in a fit of frontier justice, kills two young punks who threaten the family.
When Davy escapes from jail before sentencing and heads for the North Dakota Badlands on horse, the family pulls up roots and embarks on a journey to find him in an Airstream trailer bequeathed to them by a traveling salesman.
On one level, the book is a heroic and spiritual quest filled with adventurous allusions to Mark Twain, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Zane Grey and Butch Cassidy. The language is vivid, lyrical and chiseled. The characters lace their conversations with Biblical references and cowboy lore. The landscape is strewn with Midwestern blizzards, tornadoes, buttes, hunts and empty spaces.
Enger denies weaving any grand philosophical theme into his narrative. "I was completely absorbed in telling a story," he said. "I'm not an academic, nor am I qualified to discuss the literary merits of this or any other novel."
Yet it's hard to ignore the buoyant possibilities of miracles, grace and glory that course through his pages, the conflicting comforts and strains of family bonds, or redemption to be found in forgiveness and choices.
And at its heart, maybe, the novel asks: How does your faith measure up in a very complex and bewildering real world?
"Once torched by truth," as one of Enger's characters suggests, "a little thing like faith is easy."
Enger, 40, is already undergoing his own test of faith. He quit his 16-year job as a reporter for Minnesota Public Radio last year to become a full-time novelist.
"I loved my radio career and I wouldn't have quit it for anything else," Enger said. "It's where I learned to write concisely. But I've wanted to be a writer since I was 16 years old. So now I'm a full-time novelist. Can you believe that?"
This isn't the first excursion into fiction for Enger, who earned a degree in mass communications and English at Minnesota State University Moorhead in 1983.
Writing under the pseudonym, L.L. Enger, he and his brother Lin, who teaches English at MSUM, wrote six and published five mystery novels about a 6-foot-6-inch ex-Detroit Tiger slugger Gun Pederson who retreats to Minnesota's north woods to escape a tragic past.
The first four mysteries, "Swing," "Comeback," "Strike" and "Sacrifice" were issued by Pocket Books, the oldest publisher of paperbacks in the country. The last, "Sinner's League," was released in hardback by Simon & Schuster's line of mysteries, Otto Penzler Books.
"They were mid-level successes and the publisher eventually dropped us," Enger said. "I think we were both pretty much worn out on the series."
The two brothers, who grew up in Osakis, seem headed in similar directions. Lin, the English professor, is in the midst of writing his own novel about a Scandinavian immigrant family.
Leif wrote, "Peace Like A River," a title he co-opted from one of his favorite hymns, between 5 and 7 in the morning before commuting to work at his Minnesota Public Radio office in Brainerd.
"The story just took off. It wasn't hard labor at all," he said. "I think it's because I wrote in the voice of an 11-year-old boy. The world, as it's been said before, seems much more intriguing through the eyes of a child. I've also been told that a writer doesn't have much to say until he's 35. Well, that's about how old I was when I started this novel."
His wife Robin and two sons were his closets editors and critics. "Nearly every day I'd read to them what I'd written that morning. And Robin always seemed to know when something didn't work. In any case, all of them are highly invested in the book."
He finished the first draft on Dec. 31, 1999. "It took me another three months to clean it up, then trim about 20,000 words."
Enger didn't exactly know what he had. "Family and friends seemed to like the book," he said.
But literary success tends to feed on objectivity, not relationships. And considering today's congested fiction market, that would only come through the unsentimental eyes of a New York agent.
Still a rookie in the publishing game, Enger had to page through a copy of The Writer's Market to find an agent. His method was simple: choose the first agency alphabetically listed in the book (the Aaron Priest Agency), another agency in the middle of the list, then another at the end. He mailed each a copy of his manuscript.
"I didn't have any expectations at all," he said.
At 11 a.m. last year on June 24, Paul Cirone, a young agent from the Aaron Priest Agency, called Enger to say he'd like to represent him. Within the next month, six publishers expressed interest in "Peace Like A River" and four attended an auction to buy the publishing rights.
"That was nail biting time," Enger said. On July 24, Elisabeth Schmitz at Grove/Atlantic, who also edited Charles Frazier's best-selling first novel, "Cold Mountain," made the top offer for the North American rights. It will be the publishing house's lead title this fall.
"It's simply the most exciting discovery of the year," said Schmitz, who reviews between 15 and 20 book manuscripts a week. "The novel has gripped every reader at Atlantic since the day we bought it. It's a beautiful, uplifting and brilliantly told story that should appeal to readers of all stripes."
"Peace Like A River" already created a stir at the BookExpo America 2001 this summer in Chicago, attended by nearly 22,000 book buyers, writers, editors and publishers. According to Publishers Weekly magazine: "For the first time in many years, there was a buzz book at the show. In fact, there were two. Again and again, booksellers enthusiastically recommended 'Peace Like A River,' a debut novel by Leif Enger and 'The Corrections,' by Jonathan Franzen."
The article continues: "'Peace Like A River,' impressed the many booksellers who received advance readers, copies before the show. It's a really hopeful book," said Alaine Borgias, Village Books, Bellingham, Wash.
While it's dappled with Christian and Biblical references, Enger said his book isn't a religious novel. "Sure, I'm a Christian. But I don't know how anyone can write a book without incorporating in it something about his or her faith. I believe we are defined by our faith, or our lack of it. No, there is no more a Christian novel than 'Crime and Punishment' is."
Psalms and Proverbs, however, are among his fondest writings. "Every time I read them, I learn something. They teach me how to live."
But of all authors, Robert Lewis Stevenson and Mark Twain are among his favorites, and they both get some attention in "Peace Like A River."
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