For the first time in a quarter century, I brought the perfect book back to this secret cabin on the Pigeon River. The choice of reads, being such a weighty decision, always stymies me.
The journey back to this cabin demands serious effort and unwavering commitment, requiring 4-8 hours journey through 4-5 feet of snow, downed trees, freezing limbs and water bottles, and more. When I was young and dumb, unable to decide on one, I frequently lugged along seven or so books on the journey. Extra weight kills you in all that powder. Fall down on skis up to your neck in it, and try getting back up with all that burden on your back. Thus, the pressure is on to stow away just one great read. Preferably something life changing…
This cabin is my equivalent of Superman’s ice palace up in the Arctic. It’s not just a vacation, or simply a place to recharge deep in the wilderness. It’s so much more. The cabin lies exactly on the 48th parallel at the top of the United States. Canada lies on the other side of the river, 50 or so feet away. I devoted two chapters to this place in my book, and there are more detailed posts for you to peruse deep down in the bowels of this blog (Use “cabin” as a search word, or peruse the category of adventure). FYI, I no longer provide directions to the place. No exceptions. It’s too risky.
Anyhow, I had no idea what I’d be reading this year, having endured a bit of a dry spell in that department. A week prior to shipping out, out on a walk with the dog, I used one of the neighborhood little libraries as a destination and struck paydirt.
It’s hard to believe that Peace Like A River was Leif Enger’s first novel (Later correction: turns out, my hunch was correct. This was merely his first well-known novel. The first under his full name as author, but this isn’t a Leif Enger biography here so go discover for yourself 🙂 .
Don’t let the words “National Bestseller” stamped on the cover scare you off. It’s insanely good. It has been many years since any book has come close to touching my mind and heart in the way this one has. Even now—a full week after finishing it— I find myself gazing at the wood stove up here in my oft-neglected writing shack as it pops, clicks and ticks away, and find that my heart feels almost too affected by it, having swelled in size so much that my meager, mediocre means of expressing all this feels too small. It’s as if a giant flood from a great river were expected to be drained away by a straw, or a mere swizel stick. It’s impossible. This shriveled up heart over here moistened to overflow.
There are particulars in it that I relate to. Strongly. And the closeness of the family under such extreme circumstances is awe-inspiring. A hole in my heart reappeared at times, a loneliness that reaches deep into history, stemming from being an only child (plus some other stuff). The bond between brother and sister had me longing for a similar connection, so elusive, between my own children.
The San Francisco Chronicle endorsed the book, saying, “Peace Like a River serves as a reminder of why we read fiction to begin with.” Does it ever. I’m nearly always lost in non-fiction. Every couple of years I find myself surprised to discover how much more a good novel affects me than the usual non-fiction fare that consistently lures me in. I plod through those books as if working through a reading list in graduate school. Just getting the job done. This one may have set me on a new course. Hopefully.
The beautiful thing about Little Libraries is, though often filled with crap, sometimes you find gems like this when you least expect it. When you need them most. This book came to me, providentially, at the perfect time. Perhaps that’s why it affected me so deeply.
Generally, you see, I sleep well at “The Pigeon.” Particularly on Friday night, arriving after many hours of toilsome effort. Rarely would I describe the journey in as “fun.” It’s often the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done. Something akin to what you might hear from a marathon runner. Sleep is never a problem on that first night.
Not this time. I wrestled with God like old Jacob, lying awake for at least five of eight hours atop my bunk. Major soul-searching. Confusion. Changes needing to be made. Big ones. And, ultimately a decision that’ll ripple down through the years. Decades, even. And yet, not my identity….
Through the quiet of the night, amidst the snores of my friends, I entered into these pages in a manner reminiscent of The Neverending Story. They helped calm me, carry me away in adventure, gave perspective, challenged me, and helped open my heart. I can’t even begin to describe all that it opened up in me. Though the book was published 18 years ago, I’m grateful I read it now, when I needed it most. Perhaps I would’ve said the same thing ten years ago. Might this be what renders a story truly great?
Our Little Library sits along the sidewalk in front of our home, only rarely curated. I don’t have the brain space to interfere with it much. We typically cull from it when it becomes too stuffed to be enjoyable to passersby, and I’ll yank out the obviously trashy romance novel because that’s not what I want the thing to be known for. Inevitably, such dross sits out there for weeks at a time, but every once in a while a lucky reader will happen upon something that churns up something inside and really lights them up when they least expect it. At least I have faith this happens from time to time.
It’s an immense source of joy to see the adorable child arriving to the library with a red wagon, or to see the elderly couple leave, arm-in-arm, with a book in tow. Something to be treasured later. A couple years back, Shawna found me a gigantic book about Grandma Moses filled with numerous images of her works. I forget if she plucked it from our library or one of the others in the neighborhood. It doesn’t matter. This was my Christmas gift. We rarely purchase gifts for one another these days, investing in gifts for the kids instead (or Roth IRA contributions). A lovely gift it was. A rare book that I’ll keep indefinitely. I choose to believe our library has done something similar for somebody else. This motivates me to keep it going. Apply that needed coat of varnish this summer…
I like to think our library is 2,000 years old. No, this isn’t a claim on the lost library of Alexandria, but more of a claim on some of the building materials. Those accent pieces are redwood, reclaimed from the deck of The Flame, an old bar and restaurant that was demolished to make way for the Great Lakes Aquarium some years back. Back when these boards were procured people thought nothing about chopping down ancient redwoods. Thus, my claim that the sucker is 2,000 years old. Definitely the oldest library in Duluth. Prove me wrong!
The wood and, more importantly, the craftsmanship required to produce this functional work of art, was provided by my neighbor. He’s the same fella who built our kitchen counters. A real perfectionist, it was worth waiting some months for him to complete it. The library was installed six or seven years ago. Other than some varnish I’m needing to reapply, it has barely aged. Notice the maple flooring he nailed down in it. It’s built for the ages.
Now that it’s warming up, make it a practice to frequent the Little Libraries in your neighborhood. Get used to finding nothing that calls out to you, but every once in a while you’ll find a diamond in the rough. Be on the lookout for anything by Leif Enger. I also recommend his most recent release, Virgil Wander. I loved it, but Peace was my favorite for the aforementioned reasons. Theoretically his current writing would be better. This is a guy who has written three books in the last 19 years (probably 20). He’s a true craftsman, displaying a level of patience and care with his words that is foreign to me.
FYI, Leif moved to Duluth this past summer. I met him at the farmers market when he bought my book. I had no idea who he was, but was enamored by the fact that he was not only a guy who read books (nearly all readers are females it seems), but that he was also a writer. I only rarely meet fellas who read, and have absolutely zero contact with men who are adept at both reading and writing. I probably scared him off by my zeal (This before I knew he was a commercial success, ha ha!). Hopefully I’ll bump into him again one of these days and chat about life without freaking him out.
What novels have rocked your world? I’m looking for another. Please share…