The Law of Dreams
By Peter Behrens
The Irish potato famine of the 1840s is one of those catastrophes that have lost much of their sting. Despite increased official recognition of the famine, thanks to the mundane nature of the tuber involved it’s still a punch line for many people, usually delivered in a mock brogue on St. Paddy’s Day: “Ah, the po-ta-to famine!” But this enormous human tragedy left more than one and a half million Irish men, women and children dead from starvation and starvation-related diseases, many of them dying along the roads with their mouths green from eating grass. Roughly another million, out of a total population of some eight million, were forced to emigrate, which generally meant a voyage to Canada or the United States on unseaworthy, fever-ridden “coffin ships” that could be just as perilous.
In his first novel, Peter Behrens writes about the famine and its consequences as if he were an eyewitness. “The Law of Dreams” is an absorbing, unsparing and beautifully written account of one young man’s escape from the charnel house that Ireland became. Fergus O’Brien, Behrens’s protagonist, seems to be no more than a teenager. No specific age is ever given and his last name is barely used, which is appropriate since Fergus’s family are “cabin people,” as impoverished and isolated a peasantry as ever existed in Western Europe. Before the famine they exist almost solely on potatoes, penniless subtenants who pay their rent in labor to an English landlord residing in Italy. Fergus himself is illiterate, barefoot, largely unskilled; someone who has never even seen a chicken and has only the barest concept of what Ireland is. The changes and adventures that he endures over the course of a year seem nearly impossible, bringing him first to Dublin, then Liverpool, then Montreal and the road to “the Boston states,” but of course they were just the sorts of things that happened to thousands of people — that is to say, to the survivors. If Behrens’s story is plausible, it is because it is harsh, but if his story is harsh his writing is seamless, and often gorgeous. He is adroit at creating, then dispatching, indelible characters in a few deft strokes — a boy in the workhouse that the fever-ridden Fergus is originally taken to; a young prostitute leading a gang of juvenile highway robbers; a railroad-camp “wife” and her brutish mate; an aged fur trapper on his way back to Canada; even an ill-tempered horse, among many others.
Most of these individuals help Fergus along his way with what little they have to offer; some betray or try to use him. He betrays and often hurts them, too, if only by leaving them all behind. We miss them as much as Fergus does, and their loss drives home another truth that we don’t much care to remember in this immigrant nation, which is that the immigrant experience was all about loss, that it left scars that still festered when our forebears survived, and even triumphed.
Fergus soon realizes he is caught in a living nightmare, what happens when you discover one evening that your sole source of nourishment has vanished, the sort of catastrophe that is barely comprehensible to us in the West today. It threatens continually to destroy his moral sense, even his sanity, as he learns that “the law of dreams” — the law of surviving — “is, keep moving.” The habit among too many contemporary American writers of historical fiction is to throw all sorts of magical nonsense into their stories because they feel the past is only a literary device anyway; an unreal place, where any old notion can be indulged. What Behrens knows, what he teaches us again in this masterly novel, is that the past was indeed wondrous, and terrible and strange, but that it was a very real place, lived by real men and women, and that it sits over us still.