Novel Set During Irish Famine Reveals Beauty Amid Struggle

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Peter Behrens

It's been quite a year so far for Peter Behrens. His son Henry was born in February; in August, Behrens, his wife, and baby moved to Maine after 15 years in California. Shortly thereafter, his first novel, September Book Sense Pick The Law of Dreams, was published by Steerforth Press. And next week, he'll begin traveling in earnest to promote the book.

Though The Law of Dreams is Behrens' first novel, it's far from the first writing endeavor for this native Canadian. Night Driving, a collection of his short stories, was published in Toronto in 1987, and he worked as a screenwriter for 10 years. But despite living "very much in a movie world" all those years in California, the author said fodder for The Law of Dreams was always on his mind.

"This story has been lurking in my background because my family is pretty heavily Irish in origin," Behrens said. His maternal great-great-grandfather O'Brien left County Clare and settled in Montreal during the famine period.

"I remember as a child [in Montreal], we would go on drives after Sunday mass with my father and my grandfather and drive by a big black rock that marked the mass grave of famine victims who came from Ireland and traveled up the St. Lawrence River. A lot of them died of typhus and were buried in that mass grave."

Behrens added, "In my mom's and grandparents' generation, there was a kind of darkness and shame about that period. It was a tough time of bitter poverty, and in a way, I suppose, they were too close to it -- it wasn't something they did a lot of talking about." But, he said, "As a child and now as a writer, I saw behind that, as a way of understanding who they were. I had to go back to this experience."

Behrens said he began to write The Law of Dreams 10 years ago, shortly after his sister was killed in a car accident. His mother died six months later. "I had an intense experience of loss, and knew firsthand how grieving can work.... The book was very much written in the shadow of the tragedy that had happened in my family."

It's not surprising, then, that Behrens has imbued his central character with such strong, believable reactions and emotions as he navigates a newly threatening world. Fifteen-year-old Fergus' shock and grief at what he experiences is raw and palpable -- and what he endures is certainly more than many people could bear.

We first meet Fergus when an insidious mold begins to destroy the potatoes that were the main food source for the farmers and families of late-1840s Ireland. As the crops wither and die, so do the people in Fergus' life, and he is driven from his home only to land in a workhouse that is, he realizes, a place that will surely lead to his death by fever, starvation, or at the hand of a fellow inmate.

Fergus breaks free and begins to make his way ... to where? He isn't sure -- he only knows he must keep going, no matter how weary, betrayed, or hopeless he feels. He makes his way through a landscape that is ravaged by blight and disease, a place that looks and smells wholly unfamiliar but is still dear to him. The teenager chooses to survive, even as his terrible memories remain at the forefront of his consciousness.

"It's the way we are as humans," Behrens said. "Awful things happen, and then people stare at flowers and think how oddly marvelous the world is at the same time. It's the message that this world is worth hanging around for, because you never know what's coming. You just have to stick around and pay attention."

As with life, there is hope, beauty, and humor in The Law of Dreams. For example, Fergus briefly stays at a brothel in Liverpool, where the overwhelmed teenager is pampered and perfumed by the kindly, worldly residents and where he has one of a few sexual experiences described in the book.

Behrens said, "It was really hard to write about sex -- I'm a little squeamish. I just decided to do it from inside his head..... It's an aspect of life that's obviously very interesting, and it's part of his consciousness that couldn't be avoided." And, he said, "I wanted Fergus to be in a place where life wasn't so harsh, where there would be camaraderie and warmth for a while."

Whether writing about sex or love or death, Behrens has succeeded in what he strived for: "I wanted to break away from the pattern of historical novels as thinly clothed history lessons. I don't have a lot of big ideas; I'm just very attuned to the world as it is. It fascinates me, its sights and smells and shapes. I wanted Fergus to have that openness to sheer experience."

Behrens said he's working on his next novel, which is set during World War II. His recently launched website,, lists his tour schedule, which features stops at independent bookstores around the country -- plus a pub in New York City owned by members of Irish rock band Black 47. -- Linda M. Castellitto