Review: So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger

From what I’ve seen of readers’ reactions to So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger’s second novel, I think most people liked it, but found it a little less wonderful than his first book, Peace Like a River.

It seems to me it should be noted that trying to write a better book than Peace Like a River is a little like trying to produce a better flavor than milk chocolate.

If Peace had never been written, I think readers would hail this book as the work of a masterful new novelist, and it would immediately go on many favorites lists.

It’s not so much a fantasy as Peace was. I think there are fantasy elements, but they’re buried, running beneath the surface like secret rivers. There’s symbolism in plenty, and the gospel permeates every chapter.

Intriguingly, the second book question is really central to the story. I think Enger’s use of it in the narrative enriches the whole project.

I’m particularly pleased that the book begins in 1915, in Northfield, Minnesota, because that was the very year when my great-grandfather Walker brought his family up from Iowa to rural Kenyon, about twenty miles away from Northfield. As the book begins, the narrator, Monte Becket, is sitting on the dock in front of his house, on the Cannon River. A white-haired man rows by in a rowboat.*

Monte hails the man, but his greeting is not acknowledged. For some reason he doesn’t understand yet, it seems terribly important to him to talk to this stranger.

Monte is in a disturbed frame of mind. He’s an author, and a successful one. He wrote a Western adventure book that became a bestseller. Since then he’s been trying to come up with a new book, and failing to produce anything that pleases his publisher. In spite of having a beautiful wife who believes in him, and a son who adores him, he feels himself a failure.

In time he makes the acquaintance of the stranger, Glendon Hale, and they become friends. Hale builds boats for a living, but he tells stories of his younger days, when he was a cowboy and a badman out west.

When he tells Monte that he’s going to Mexico, to find the wife he abandoned long ago and apologize to her, Monte agrees to come along with him, not even certain why he’s going.

Before long he finds himself in a Les Miserables-style pursuit, first as an accomplice of Glendon’s, then as the prisoner of Glendon’s nemesis, the grim and relentless former Pinkerton detective, Charles Siringo (an actual historical character).

Themes of law versus gospel, and freedom versus determinism, are explored, argued, and lived out as the story goes on. There are gunfights, murders, natural disasters and headlong pursuits. The world of a Leif Enger novel is one of surprise and adventure, outrage and tragedy, but one in which the great counsels of God are ever at work, secretly but inexorably, and with perfect wisdom.

If you don’t expect a re-hash of Peace Like a River, I think you’ll be very happy with So Brave, Young, and Handsome. I know I was.

*My brother points out to me, as a matter of record, that this is an instance of authorial license. He knows rivers much better than I do, and he assures me that the Cannon is far too shallow and obstructed to float any kind of man-sized boat for any distance.

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