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The Law of Dreams

by Peter Behrens

Almost everyone in Canada has ancestors who immigrated to this country from afar; that past journey is part of the universal Canadian memory. Peter Behrens’ first novel reflects his own family’s experience, forced out of Ireland by the potato famine. Almost two million people died or left Ireland between 1845 and 1854.

Behrens, who published the short story collection Night Driving in 1987, vividly illuminates the primitive condition of his characters’ lives and the cruel and unjust treatment they receive. Fergus O’Brien, the hero of this novel, is 16 years old in 1846. His family resides in a one-room hovel, tenants of the farmer Carmichael, who is in turn the tenant of the Earl of Liskerry. Each of Carmichael’s tenants has a small plot of land that provides just enough potatoes to feed them for 10 months of the year. (“The pig was kept on potato scraps and sold to pay the annual rent – they never tasted the meat. [Fergus] consumed five pounds of potatoes everyday, steamed, boiled or mashed.”)

In one of Fergus’s early adventures, he is adopted by the Bog Boys, a gang of youths living in an abandoned peat bog, who survive by scavenging for food and robbing passing travellers at gunpoint. The Bog Boys, out in the wild and reverting to savages, recall William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In Behrens’ novel, the boys are fuelled by injustice but hampered by a lack of direction. They attack the Carmichael farm to steal the food stores. Disaster ensues for both them and the Carmichael family.

Spanning approximately a year, The Law of Dreams is a journey from the mountains of Ireland to Liverpool, Wales, Montreal, and then onward to the U.S. Fergus survives the loss of family, friends, and home, and is thrust out into the world to seek his future. He endures a harrowing 40-day journey across the North Atlantic where he (and the reader) suffers the perils of storms, icebergs, cramped quarters, appalling food, and disease. Fergus lands in Montreal haunted by his past deeds and experiences.

The Law of Dreams is structured around Fergus’s emotional and spiritual quest. Throughout the book, he has a series of companions and protectors who assist him when he is sick, hungry, or exhausted. He and the other characters are constantly forced to make difficult choices in order to survive. At that moment in history, England was enjoying rapid economic growth – the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and the railroads were expanding in all directions on almost every continent. For a time, Fergus works as a labourer on the railroad, living in a wilderness shantytown. Behrens gives a voice to those who struggled during this era with poverty and illiteracy, who worked long hours for a few shillings a day and faced the possibility of injury or even death.

The women in the novel, while endowed with mental toughness and a sense of survival, are frequently nothing more than chattel: washing, mending, and cooking for the men while being violated, assaulted, and traded like tobacco. Fergus’s mother is ground down by her poverty and her husband’s inability to support the family. While slightly more affluent, Phoebe Carmichael, the farmer’s daughter, assumes responsibility for the domestic needs of her father and two brothers. Luke, the leader of the Bog Boys (though she is in fact a girl), struggles to provide for her gang members and is betrayed by the boys’ enthusiasm and idealism. Shea, the madam in Liverpool, while financially successful, relies on men who ultimately destroy her and everything she has acquired.

The effect of so much poverty, violence, and death could easily sink the novel into bleakness and futility. However, Behrens excels at inspiring empathy. I found myself engrossed in their lives and rooting for Fergus’s ultimate triumph. Behrens also captures the Irish charm, personality, and fatalism we know so well. His prose style is elegant, often poetic, in contrast to the unforgiving and violent world Fergus inhabits. The book is richly textured with period detail.

The Law of Dreams will inform and entertain anyone curious about an ancestor’s life, not just in Ireland, but throughout Europe in the 19th century. The struggle to escape tyranny and poverty was widespread. The harsh journey to a new country and the challenges immigrants faced to establish a foundation upon which to rebuild their lives for the benefit of future generations was a common experience, one that clearly still resonates.