So Brave Young and HandsomeSo Brave, Young, and Handsome
by Leif Enger

A few years ago, I read Enger’s Peace Like a River for the annual “If All Rochester Read the Same Book” event. Once every few years, a book comes along that I fall into as though it’s made to fit the shape of my mind and soul perfectly. Peace Like a River was one of those books.

Now I’ve discovered a new book by the same author. Read it, love it. I admit I don’t love it the same way I loved the first one. It’s not a revelation, not a book that’ll be on my forever-favorite list. But I loved it with that new-book delight and enthusiasm that used to come over me more easily when I was younger, when a book could keep me awake past curfew, sneaking in chapters with a flashlight under the covers. A book that gives me so much fun is a good’un, even if it doesn’t change my life or anything.

This book seems to admit, “Everything really important was in the first book.  But here are a few stray reflections loosely related to that book’s themes.  We might as well explore them a little, just to tie up loose ends.”

What might Davy’s later years have been like? Something like Glen Dobie’s perhaps? What might Davy’s end have been if he didn’t make it to Glen’s age?  Something like Hood Roberts, maybe?

What sticks with me from this book is the metaphor of stepping over a line and finding that you’re in a different place, and there’s no going back to where you were. The narrator feels that way when he is standing on the end of the dock listening to the invitation to get into the boat with Glen. Stay on the dock — or get into the boat? One small step, and the line is crossed, so smoothly that the jolt isn’t even felt. Yet nothing can be the same after that.

In Peace Like a River, the moment Davy fired the shots, such a line had been crossed. In So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Hood’s life separated into before and after when the prairie town went up in smoke. But in a sense, there was an earlier moment, when Eric’s neck was accidentally broken, when Hood might have done something else, might have bent towards the young actor with concern and apology, and things would have been different. He fled instead.

But here’s the interesting thing about crossing the bar, it can be either good or bad, or perhaps both. The narrator’s step into that boat led him badly astray from the law. Yet after many adventures, it also led him to a new place of peace, to a new home that was better than the home he had stepped away from.

The most definitive and amazing moment of the book, the moment that sums up the book for me, is the moment near the end when the old outlaw Glen Dobie puts down his weapons and comes out with his hands up. He chose to take a courageous step over a line he’d spent decades avoiding, and in that moment he stepped into a whole new life. Just like that, smoothly, quietly, with no perceptible jolt, it was done. That easily. That’s how grace comes, with one simple new step that breaks across an old boundary line.

Favorite quotes:

  • “In times of dread, it’s good to have an old man along. An old man has always seen worse.”
  • “You can’t explain grace, anyway, especially when it arrives almost despite yourself. I didn’t even ask for it, yet somehow it breached and began to work. I suppose grace was pouring over Glendon, who had sought it so hard, and some spilled down on me.”
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