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The Law of Dreamsby Peter Behrens
Synopses & Reviews
The Law of Dreams tells the story of a young man's epic passage from innocence to experience during The Great Famine in Ireland of 1847.
On his odyssey through Ireland and Britain, and across the Atlantic to "the Boston states," Fergus is initiated to violence, sexual heat, and the glories and dangers of the industrial revolution. Along the way, he meets an unforgettable generation of boy soldiers, brigands, street toughs and charming, willful girls - all struggling for survival in the aftermath of natural catastrophe magnified by political callousness and brutal neglect.
Peter Behrens transports the reader to another time and place for a deeply-moving and resonant experience. The Law of Dreams is gorgeously written in incandescent language that unleashes the sexual and psychological energies of a lost world while plunging the reader directly into a vein of history that haunts the ancestral memory of millions in a new millennium.
"'The Law of Dreams' is a fearsome story of such prolonged agony and unquenchable spirit that you can't escape till the final page abandons you to astonished silence. Peter Behrens, a screenwriter who lives in Maine, based this debut novel on his family's history in Ireland, but the private tragedy he describes was common to hundreds of thousands of people during the Great Famine of 1847, and the language... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) he uses constantly soars above that calamity toward the mystery of human struggle. His young hero, Fergus O'Brien, endures abuses and deprivations that would make a lesser man feral, but there's a native decency in him, a natural grace that renders his decision to survive all the more agonizing. He belongs to a tenant family that subsists for 10 months of every year on the potatoes they grow on a quarter-acre of mountainous land. It's a tough existence, but Fergus prides himself on caring for his mother and sisters, and there's pleasure in the success of his labor: 'Potatoes were not made or cut,(END ILAL) like the farmer's hay or corn,' Behrens writes. 'They were lifted, joyfully, the surprise of the world.' We meet Fergus just before a virulent mold spreads across Ireland, withering and blighting the country's crop. Throughout the novel, Behrens stays close to Fergus' experience and knowledge, but everything that Fergus witnesses resonates with the horrible facts of this period. About a third of the 8 million people in Ireland lived almost exclusively on potatoes before the blight struck. Farmers were completely helpless to stop it. Cruel economic policies in England quickly exacerbated the situation, and widespread poverty, starvation and disease followed. Those who survived (and many who were soon to die) took to the roads, desperate for food. That's the general history most of us know, but in this extraordinary novel Behrens conveys a kind of visceral comprehension of the events that only one who survived them could surpass. Ten weeks into the famine, Fergus' stubborn father still refuses to take his family away, even as their landlord rides around the mountain knocking down shacks and sending families off with a little money. In the first of many unforgettable scenes, Fergus' siblings and parents are finally burned alive in their beds, too weak with hunger even to object. Only Fergus survives, and, in what's considered a great act of charity, he's deposited in a workhouse, where he's immediately stripped, shaved and sprayed with acid to kill the lice. 'Paupers lay about the yard,' Behrens writes, 'soft as gutted trout.' Fergus soon realizes that the workhouse is a trap where he'll either be starved to death or carried off by fever. Over and over, he confronts the frightening powerlessness of his position, but it never loses its ability to shock him — or us: 'Awareness pierces the chest like a spike being driven in. The world doesn't belong to you. Perhaps you belong to the world, but that's another matter.' Fergus reaches out everywhere for friendship and love; he's a kind, loyal young man, but he's doomed to outlive his companions, constantly forced to pull pennies from the pockets of freshly dead friends who won't need them anymore. 'You had to stay alive,' Behrens writes, 'every instinct told you. Stay in your life as long as you can. If only to see what would happen. Every breath told you to keep breathing.' When he manages to break out of the workhouse, his ordeal continues: He joins a gang of young thieves, he lives in a whorehouse, and he works on the rails spreading across Ireland almost as fast as the potato blight. All this time, he dreams of a place called America, about which he knows absolutely nothing. Still, a vague sense of its possibility eventually draws him across the Atlantic in one of the novel's most arduous sections. 'The Law of Dreams' rings with a strange, hard poetry, a mingling of Behrens' rich narrative voice and scraps of startling wisdom that seem to emanate directly from Fergus' mind. Here he is in Liverpool, outside a pub, starving and barefoot, as always: 'Trying to make up his mind, he hopped restlessly from one foot to another, one coin in each fist. The door opened and (a) pack of thick-shouldered men came out, and he caught a tantalizing whiff of the smoky, meaty atmosphere within. 'You could stand outside, bootless and chewing fear like a baby; or take the bold plunge. Offer a coin for a feed and see if they would take it. 'The world, latent; a gun loaded with chance and mistakes.' In the life of this determined young man, Behrens illuminates one of the 19th century's greatest tragedies and the massive migration it launched. A novel that animates the past this vibrantly should make volumes of mere history blush. 'Life burns hot,' Fergus thinks, and so do these pages. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Peter Behrens' superb The Law of Dreams is an emotional epic done in shadow-show, a lucid dream of the past, bearing echoes of Melville and Ondaatje, conveying scents and shimmers of a vanished world under the skin of our own." Jonathan Lethem
"All history is story and in The Law of Dreams Peter Behrens takes us into the hearts of savages, rapacious English landlords posing as gentlemen in Ireland, and shows us how the failure of one simple crop, the potato, led to the deaths, the despair and the diaspora of millions of poor Irish. Behrens is a superb storyteller and a brilliant teacher who never lets on that he is teaching us. This book is a beautifully written, poetically inspired tale of heroism, love, yes and sex, and the triumph of the human spirit over murderous greed. It's a long road that Behrens makes shorter with many a surprising turn. The Law of Dreams is one great book. I stayed up into the wee hours to finish it. I envy you this journey." Malachy McCourt, author of A Monk Swimming
"The Law of Dreams is the best literary adventure novel I've read since Lonesome Dove. Impelled by his great dream, Peter Behrens' young Irish hero survives the potato famine of 1847, an all-out war with his landlord, the brutalities of life on the tramp, a railroad encampment, nineteenth-century Liverpool, and the perils of an Atlantic crossing, to immigrate to North America. What a splendid tale! The Law of Dreams is a brilliant, heart-felt celebration of the capacity of the human spirit, fueled by hope, to prevail in the face of the worst life can offer." Howard Frank Mosher
Blending excruciating detail with the hopefulness of beauty, The Law of Dreams is a novel of struggle and fulfillment; of trust and the hollowness of betrayal. From a mountaintop in Ireland to the beckoning promise of America there are scenes that will remain, forever, imprinted upon the reader's mind. Peter Behrens is a tremendously talented writer." Alistair MacLeod, author of No Great Mischief
"Inspired by his own family history, Behrens has fashioned a paean to the strength of the human spirit that illuminates a piece of history. The law of dreams is to keep moving, and that's what Fergus does, taking advantage of opportunities even as he is haunted by dreams and hurt by betrayal. Behrens tells this story in spare prose that distills ideas to their essence, making this absorbing historical fiction." Booklist
"A portrait of desire rendered in darkly lyric tones. Peter Behrens is a highly gifted conjurer; the past he evokes is as mythic as it is historic, as seductive as it is nightmarishly, gorgeously real." Heidi Julavits
"Behrens is an unobtrusively elegant stylist....One of the many fine things about Peter Behrens' stunningly lyric first novel, The Law of Dreams, is that it is emphatically a story of that 'great hunger,' a work of richly empathetic imagination that reminds us once again of how powerful historical fiction can be in skilled hands." Tim Rutten, LA Times
About the Author
Peter Behrens' short stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, Saturday Night, and The National Post and have been anthologized in Best Canadian Stories and Best Canadian Essays. He is the author of a collection of short stories, Night Driving (Macmillan). Behrens was a Fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and held a prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. He was born in Montreal and lives on the coast of Maine with his wife and son.
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