It is the early 1960s in Roofing, Minnesota. Reuben Land lives there with his father Jeremiah, older brother Davy, and younger sister Swede. Their mother has long since abandoned them. Reuben is an asthmatic who owes his very life to his father's ability to work miracles; it is only through Jeremiah's command and laying on of hands that Reuben started to breathe many long minutes after his birth. When the story opens, Reuben is eleven and his father, a janitor at the school, has stepped in in the girls' locker room to protect Davy's girlfriend from an assault by two hoodlums in town. The boys fight back, first by vandalizing the Land's home, and then by Swede from and then returning her to her own home. The escalation of hostilities, in which Jeremiah Land refuses to participate, reaches a head when the boys break into the Land's home one night and Davy shoots and kills them in cold blood. When Davy is put on trial for murder, he breaks out of jail and escapes. Reuben, Swede, and their father try to track him down before the Feds do, trailing him into the surreal landscape of the Badlands.
Reuben is presented as idolizing his older brother and his father both so he doesn't know whether he should root for Davy's complete disappearance or for Jeremiah, who appears to be being led by God, to find Davy. He is trying to figure his way in the world amid all of his conflicting feelings and the knowledge that even his highly moral father is wrestling with what is right. Younger sister Swede is barely nine and she has the convictions of a young child in terms of right and wrong. But even she starts to have her notions of black and white challenged, as reflected in the epic Western poem she writes throughout the action of the story. Her poem is a problem though, too precocious by far for a child her age, even one who is incredibly smart and well read and her understanding of events is too quick for a child with as few life experiences as she has had. Davy as a character is harder to know. Not only is he missing from a large chunk of the narrative but even when he is present, he is inscrutable to the reader. Whether he is intentionally drawn this way is the question.
The novel is narrated by Reuben from the vantage point of adulthood but it still manages to capture most of the scene through the eyes of a child giving the narrative a slightly jarring back and forth feeling. Although the action is in mainly trying to find Davy, the story is also a Gospel of Jeremiah, the recounting of his miracles and his Job-like trials at the hands of God. There is a definite heaven and hell dichotomy and a strong core of religious belief here despite the fact that Enger never preaches to the reader, tapping into a deep vein of faith and morality. The writing about place is beautiful, evocative, and powerful and there is a controlled stillness to the narrative. In plot terms, there is a big conundrum in trying to find Davy. While Jeremiah is certainly being led by a Higher Being to his son, there is no indication that Davy is being led to find his family in the same way or through the same catalyst so his sudden ability to turn up feels too convenient. The general pace of the narrative is slow; sometimes this hinders the story and at other times it highlights it so on balance it works out okay. The ending of the story comes full circle to the beginning and as such is too frustratingly predictable and an obvious set-up. Over all though, this is a decent coming of age tale, one of sacrifice and heroism, right and wrong, good and evil, and mixed with a folksy Americana version of morality.