Davy Land: Self-Sacrificing or Self-Interested?

A paper that explores the bonds that exist between a family faced with a dark situation involving sexual assault, murder, and the letter of the law.

In Leif Enger’s book “Peace Like A River” we are introduced to a family of four main characters: Jeremiah Land, the father; Davy Land, the eldest brother; Reuben, the middle child and narrator of the story; and Swede Land, the youngest child and only daughter. From the moment we meet them, we see how unique each character is. Jeremiah Land is a religious man who has wrought miracle after miracle with his son Reuben as his witness. Davy Land is a sixteen-year-old boy who is especially skilled in hunting. Rueben Land is our narrator- an asthmatic, weak young boy who wants nothing more than to be able to breathe like everyone else. Lastly there is Swede Land, a spunky and brilliant girl who loves stories and who writes her own stories throughout the book itself. As with many tales, the main character’s lives are normal until something changes that: in this book it is Davy’s confrontation with two boys his age- Israel Finch and Tommy Basca -and later his double homicide of the two boys that creates the book’s turmoil. It is this very act that is the focus of this paper.

Now, throughout the book we see many different points of view on Davy’s actions- on whether Davy killed them as an act of self-defense or as an act of premeditated murder. One anonymous letter to Davy while he is waiting on trial writes that it’s great to see “…a young man stand up in defense of hearth of home…Your bravery gives us all new hearts…”(60), clearly seeing Davy as a hero who was protecting his family when he shot and killed Israel and Tommy. A second point of view is seen in another anonymous letter sent to him later on in the book, “…I hope your trial is a great success and that the judge gives you the electric chair, you butcher, or however it is done in this present day. Hang you by the neck until dead”(72). Though quite a vivid belief on Davy’s actions, it shows that this person believes that Davy was the one in the wrong in this event and, due to that, was a murderer who should hang. But these are just two random characters- what are the other main characters’ thoughts on this? 

Swede and Reuben are the two characters that we see the most of in this book. On this topic, they both hold differing views, though at first it does not seem that. Davy is their older brother who has always been there for them; so upon his double homicide of Israel and Tommy they are immediately on his side. Swede stays on his side for the entire book, believing that he was nowhere in the wrong- but Reuben, Reuben shifts and at the end of the book finally takes a firm stance that is the opposite of Swede’s. One of the most important lines in the book is spoken by Reuben when he is speaking with his father, “Davy did a wrong thing”(245). Though a small line in the book, it shows the shift and decision that young Reuben has been trying to come to throughout the book.  

At first, Swede and Reuben believe that Davy was a hero and was innocent. They speak of him as a hero- as someone who fought and put himself at risk for the greater good. But they are wrong, and young Reuben soon realizes this as shown by the line quoted just above. Trying to understand by digging deeper into what Reuben’s statement means, the answer to this debate became clear: Davy Land is a selfish character whose every action has been to protect what he considers his to protect- what his duty is rather than any true part of what is morally right in the situation. Once he has accomplished this and is faced with the consequences, instead of standing and facing them like a hero, he runs away- leaving behind the very people he swore to protect and love, leaving them to squander on their own and face the consequences that he caused. This has been clear due to his actions throughout the book. To better describe how this conclusion came into being, we must start at the beginning of the story.

Tommy Basca and Israel Finch’s first actions that truly brought them into the limelight of the story was their attempted rape of Dolly; Davy Land’s crush. They were stopped by Jeremiah Land who happens to be the school janitor. From here, the two boys declare revenge on the Land family. Their next action was to come to the Land’s house, kidnap little Swede, and be perverted boys with her before bringing her home shortly after. It’s interesting that both these two characters that Israel and Tommy assaulted were personally connected to Davy Land. Of course, the narration is told from Reuben’s point of view so it’s possible that he just wasn’t told about this if it did happen, but it’s interesting that after her assault Dolly was never brought up again in the story. She plays a very important part in Davy’s decision to kill the two boys, yet we never hear about her again. Davy never even seems to be concerned about her, to ask about her, or to even check up on her. Of course as said before, this could all be tied to the fact that the narrator is young Rueben whose older brother and father tried to keep him out of this situation and so may not have spoken about Dolly around him much. But, it’s still strange that Davy never seems angry about the event- he just continues on as if life hadn’t changed at all. 

Then, when Swede is taken by the two boys, Davy does not seem to approach her much about it. He was calm, cool, and collected. He doesn’t seem to ever check up on her, instead he is totally focused on the boys and what is being done about this. There was one thing about this situation that was bothering, but hard to put to words until suddenly it hit: Tommy and Israel Finch had just tried to rape Dolly, had been beaten by Jeremiah Land, and then had threatened revenge on the Land family- yet when Jeremiah and Reuben had left to go to church, leaving Davy home alone with Swede(and knowing full well about Israel and Tommy’s threat against their family), Davy left Swede alone in the house and didn’t check up on her once, not even knowing that she was gone until she had returned when he was done “Finishing his work in the garage”(36)? He is the eldest brother, yet he leaves his not even nine-year-old sister alone in a house when two perverted teenage boys have a target on his family and have already assaulted his girlfriend? What truly concerned older brother would be so careless? Even more, as stated before, afterwards he never really checked on Swede or seemed upset over it. The only emotion that Rueben states that he sees in Davy’s eyes is “contempt”(37) when speaking with the policeman and how he is dealing with it, asking “How many times does a dog have to bite before you put him down?”(36). These facts all together lead me to part of my conclusion.

Davy Land sees these acts as a personal attack on him- he is the one that has been bitten three times by the ‘dogs’; he is the hunter dealing with two disloyal and terrible dogs who have strayed. Reuben often remarks that Davy does not act like a regular sixteen-year-old; that he is not a child, but a man. A man whose girl and little sister, the people he is supposed to protect, have been assaulted. He is not concerned over them, he is inflamed at the affront on his pride. It is his pride as a man that is his concern, not the well-being of Dolly or Swede- as shown in the things stated before this. He doesn’t care about his moral duty as an older brother or boyfriend, but rather his masculine duty in this role and how that has been hurt by Israel and Tommy.

Another situation that supports this idea is found on the actual night of the double homicide. We know from his session in court that “Davy Land came to the Finch’s residence. With a tire iron…and smashed out the windows of Israel’s car, in which the boy took inordinate pride”(84) and the revelation that brought to Reuben in regards to the gun Davy had during the break-in, “Of course he’d taken it to bed. I saw it now. He knew they were coming. He’d issued them an invitation”(85). One can understand why Davy felt the need to seek retribution by destroying Finch’s car- the very place they had assaulted Swede in and also destroying something Israel had pride in- which seems as if he is saying, ‘you attacked my pride? Well, I will attack yours’. But, his actions are careless. He went and destroyed Israel Finch’s car and then grabbed his shotgun and took it to bed, waiting for them to arrive. 

But how could he know that they would come straight to the house and enter Davy and Reuben’s house? They could’ve went to Dolly’s house and hurt her like they did in the first place; they could have went into Jeremiah’s room and attacked him while he was asleep for his actions in the school’s locker room; they could’ve went after Swede again; they could’ve just stayed outside and set fire to the house. Davy had no clue what they would do- he figured they would come after him directly, but at the end of the day it was a risk, a risk that could potentially put his family in danger. If Davy truly wanted to protect his family, he would have faced the boys somewhere else, away from the home. Instead, he invited them to it; that does not logically seem like the actions of a person who cares about his family; this is a battle- Israel Finch’s pride vs. Davy Land’s pride and it didn’t seem to matter to him what got caught in the middle.

The evidence that Davy does not care about his family and how this affects them continues on throughout the rest of the book. Due to his killing of Israel Finch and Tommy Basca, Davy Land was arrested and put in jail to await his trials. As more facts came out about the situation as the trial went on, Davy was unrepentant of his actions despite how much his lawyer tried to convince him to be so as to make the situation less harsh on Davy. As each day of the trial turned out worse and worse for Davy, climaxing with Reuben being called to the stand and revealing how Davy had said, “How many times do you let a dog bite you, before you put him down”(91), Davy made a decision. When it was clear that all of the evidence pointed to him, Davy chose to run- to break out of jail and escape West. In this, he was focused on himself, choosing to leave behind his family and abandon them. Instead of standing together with his family and getting through it with them by his side, he chose to leave, not sticking by them as they had with him. His running away showed how little concern he had about his family in regards to his own situation. He left his family to deal with the fall out of the decisions that he made, putting his own safety and pride above their well-being.

The final piece of evidence is during the climactic scene of the book- Davy Land and Sara run away from Jape Waltzer. In his running from him, he went to his family’s house, putting this directly in the line of fire. Of course, that is understandable- he hadn’t seen his family(other than Reuben) in so long so he chose to visit them. What is seen as unforgiveable is what happens after Jape Waltzer attacks. Roxanna and Swede had run inside to find Jeremiah’s gun to fight back. They found the gun, but it had no bullets with it. Heading back outside, they saw that “The Ford was gone and Davy with it. Waltzer’s chair lay tipped in the shade beside the barn. Dad was propped on an elbow on the gravel, bleeding abundantly from a hole in his right side. I was on my face in the lee of the porch”(305). Davy had brought this danger to his family, he may not have meant to, but in the end his actions led to consequences. His own father and brother were shot and lying seemingly dead on the ground. Swede and Roxanna- the women of the house- chose to stand up and defend the household from Jape Waltzer. What did Davy choose to do? Once again he ran- he got into the car and left, leaving his own shot father and younger brother lying on the ground outside their home. Once again, his decisions put his family at risk and when things began to look bad for him, he ran- thinking only of himself and his safety, not checking on Swede and Roxanna. 

Of course, due to two characters being shot and unconscious and the girls being inside, we are not sure what happened in this situation. Did Davy lure Jape Waltzer away to protect his family? Possibly. Did he confront him, leaving Waltzer’s chair tipped over and then drive the car away? Maybe. But, whatever happened it’s hard to see how an older brother can see his father(someone who raised him and taught him so much) and his little brother(asthmatic and weak, who he is supposed to protect) lying possibly dead on the ground and not do something to help- instead just leaving them crumbled on the ground. How can someone see two people they love lying shot on the ground and actually be able to leave, only reappearing even now and again after this? He even left Sara behind at the house, the person he had saved from Jape Waltzer and had run away instead of staying to protect her. This seems to point to the idea that Davy is fulfilling his duty here- rescuing Sara, dealing with Waltzer, leaving her somewhere safe, and then continuing to be on the run, instead of anything really connected to morals or emotions. No matter how one looks at this, Davy’s actions do not seem to coincide with the idea that he is a man who is doing all of this for his family, to protect them.

Throughout this book we are faced with the debate on Davy Land: is he a self-sacrificing hero or a self-interested person? This paper has defended the latter of these two: that Davy Land is a character who is only concerned with himself. He fights for his pride and for what he considers his duty as a man. He is not emotionally driven, but rather driven by his own beliefs on how a ‘man’ should act when he is the one attacked. Dolly is almost raped and Swede is assaulted, yet instead of checking on their well-being, he sees Israel Finch and Tommy Basca’s actions as a personal attack on his pride. His lack of concern for his family is shown in between this as he is left alone with Swede, knowing that Israel and Tommy have placed a target on his family, and leaves her alone in the house while he focuses on his work in the garage, not even noticing she is gone until she has returned as he saw when he was finished with his work in the garage. On the night of the double homicide, he goes to the Finch’s residence and destroy Israel’s car(in a ‘you hurt my pride, I’ll hurt yours’ kind of way) and invites them to his house, not knowing even what they would do in response- ultimately putting the people around him in danger. Then when he is arrested and put on trial, just as the case is not going well for him, he decides to run away, leaving his family to deal with the aftermath. Next during the climactic scene of the book, Davy brings Sara to visit his family after they both escaped from Jape Waltzer, bringing the consequences of his decision with him. With his father shot and unconscious on the ground and his younger brother in the same situation, he leaves Sara behind and the girls and runs again, maybe having dealt with Jape Waltzer, but in the end his decisions once again put his family at risk. Also, instead of staying with his family and seeing if they are ok, he leaves and only ever sees them occasionally after that. 

Now, when a person reads this book and learns about this family, they want to believe that they are all tight knit together. But, looking at the evidence, Davy seems to be the odd man out. Some may disagree with the thesis of this paper, believing that Davy is a true hero. It is true that, despite what motivates him, he is saving people, but it feels like his motivations are important as they will show just how far he would go to protect them. If it’s just for his pride, then his protection will only go so far as he deems he needs to. The best piece of evidence that can be offered to counteract these views, though, is that the book agrees with this idea as well. Enger could have had anyone as the main character, and yet he chose Reuben. Throughout the book, Enger shows so many point of views on what Davy is– a hero or a murderer –but the most important point of view is Reuben’s. At first he is on Davy’s side as he is his older brother. But, we see that begin to shift throughout the book until one of the most important lines in the book comes, when Reuben says, “Davy did a wrong thing”(245). Reuben has finally decided that Davy is not the hero that Swede made him out to be, of course he does not go so far on the other side as this paper does, but it is important that he aligns with that. That is this argument’s best defense- that the main character believes that Davy is not a hero, but something else entirely even though Day is his big brother. One can even argue that Reuben’s view as the main narrator is in turn the writer’s belief as well. But, this paper’s argument rests on the evidence that has been compiled and, so far in reading over the book, no other evidence to the contrary seems strong enough to counteract all that has been argued here. So, it is with finality that this paper concludes that Davy Land is not a hero, but is a self-interested man whose only purpose in life is standing up and protecting his pride as a man in any way he deems appropriate and necessary, not caring if anyone else is hurt in the process.