(The Irish countryside during the 1846-1850 potato famine)
Over the years a myriad of books dealing with the Irish potato famine and the resulting immigration to the United States have appeared. Some are non-fiction and others fall into the historical fiction category. Peter Behrens’ novel, THE LAW OF DREAMS is a wonderful addition to the historical fiction genre encapsulating the plight of the Irish in mid-nineteenth century England as they made their way across the Atlantic. What separates Behrens’ effort from the rest is the poignancy and sensitivity of his story and the development of his characters.
The novel begins as Own Carmichael, returns from the county seat at Enis where he is informed by his land agent, who manages the affairs for the landlord, the sixth Earl that he must “eject” as he terms it, the peasants who work his land. The reason given is that it is more profitable to raise sheep for mutton than have the peasants work the land. The agent warns Owen he must carry out the landlord’s orders or he would be responsible for the rent. For the agent, “sheep, not people is what you want to fatten. Mutton is worth money. Mutton is wanted, mutton is short. Of Irishmen, there’s an exceeding surplus.” (5) As he returns to the farm, Owen contemplates what choices are available to him. As he walked home he passed women and their naked children who were scrounging in a turnip field for survival. From this point on Behrens’ novel unfolds through the eyes of Fergus, a fifteen year old boy whose family is about to be “ejected.”
The core of the novel takes place in the late 1840s as Behrens describes Fergus’ life once alonenes is forced on him. We follow him through the Irish countryside, aboard ship to Dublin and Liverpool, the strenuous Atlantic crossing, and his final arrival in Canada. Throughout, the reader is exposed to the horrendous conditions which the Irish must cope; hunger and poverty permeate every page. From the fields, the work house, railroad construction, or aboard ship, people make life altering decisions each day. Along the reader’s journey, Behrens provides heart rendering descriptions of the Irish underclass as they have to deal with their daily travails. From descriptions of Liverpool’s shanty areas, red light districts, to labor on the railroads, the reader is enveloped by the story. Evidence of the Industrial Revolution’s grip on English towns and cities are everywhere. Fergus chooses the life of a tramp on the road over the freedom of the railroad for a time, and then gives in to his loss of freedom as he realizes he must go to America.
What makes this novel a success is its ability to integrate the underclass that the Irish poor represent throughout the storyline. We witness Fergus’ family’s struggle to survive under a tenant based land system that is skewed toward the land lord. A system designed to keep Irish peasants in poverty from generation to generation. We witness the death of Fergus’ family something that is easily predictable based on the situation. Next is Fergus’ struggle to survive living on the road as a tramp, a path with its own self-contained rules that represents a very violent society. Rural life is a day to day battle, but once Fergus meets Arthur we are provided a window into the racial divide that the Irish confront each day in Liverpool. Be it street riots, life in a brothel, working laying railroad tracks, or trying to avoid becoming a victim of typhus, the hard ships endured by Fergus seem to constantly multiply. Perhaps the most stirring aspect of the story is the voyage on the “Laramie” that brings Fergus and Molly together as they try to reach America and avail themselves of a life of freedom and opportunity.
Throughout, Behrens develops an interesting dynamic among his characters. Arthur, who tries to educate Fergus in a world apart from serfdom, and Molly, a hardened women who employs her body as a tool to live another day. Once Fergus falls in love with her we are privy to a caring but cruel relationship. On board ship we meet Mr. Ormsby who will change Fergus’ life. We are exposed to the individual stories of the passengers who we must admire for their courage as they try to escape poverty and make their way across the ocean. Each person has their own fears and anxieties about their pasts and what awaits them in the future.
Behrens’ dialogue reflects the social class divide and ethnic nationalism that pervades Ireland that includes the rural and urban existence of the English poor. The author’s command of language, the dialects he presents and the meaning of each phrase provides insight into a story that he tells that reflects the experience of his own family. As he makes transitions from each scene to the next, be it Fergus’ experience in the work house, the bog boys tramping in the countryside, life in the Dragon House brothel, or coping with typhus aboard ship we experience the nasty side effects of the Industrial Revolution that drive men like Mr. Coole to abandon his religion to bring his children to America. All of these characters create their own stories within the overall plot line that captures the reader’s attention and keeps them turning the pages. Behrens is very adept at introducing new characters and then dispatching them, with only Fergus feeling their loss as they pass through the novel. The end result is that the author leaves the reader wondering what will happen to Fergus, a question that can be easily resolved by reading his latest novel, THE O’BRIENS.