Tuesday, July 31, 2007

"The Law of Dreams"

Peter Behrens' collection of short stories, Night Driving, was published in 1987. His stories and essays have appeared in Tin House, Brick, Best Canadian Stories, Best Canadian Essays, the Atlantic Monthly, and many anthologies. After his first story published in the US appeared in the Atlantic Monthly and was optioned in Hollywood he began to work as a professional screenwriter.

He applied the "Page 69 Test" to The Law of Dreams, his first novel, and reported the following:
Page 69. Well, it's a good test page for The Law of Dreams because it is a crucial scene. My protagonist Fergus, an Irish teenager (teenager was a concept not yet invented in 1846, but he is 15), has fled from the workhouse and set off for god knows where (his sense of geography is very limited; he's not exactly sure he lives in a country called Ireland; has hardly heard of Dublin). The law of dreams is, keep moving. He has stowed away on a wagonload of brand-new, empty, pine coffins (a bustling trade at the height of the Famine). It's the middle of the night on a bleak icy stretch of road in bogland, when the wagon is halted by a gang of would-be highwaymen, calling themselves the "Bog Boys," who are mostly children led by a girl dressed as a boy -- a former milkmaid -- calling herself Luke. The Bog Boys would like to think of themselves as a rebel gang but they are really confused orphan children led by Luke and Shamie, a young deserter from the British Army. They are "living rough" in the bog, feasting on stolen sheep and rabbits and birds' eggs and boiled nettles.

Luke asks Fergus to join them, and he thinks about it and agrees.

Luke is one of three girls in the story who are essential to Fergus' survival, to the development of his ability to feel a passionate erotic connectedness with life; a fierce desire to stay in life, not leave it.

While Luke is trying to persuade Fergus of the glamor and romance of the highwayman's life, the younger Bog Boys are "houghing," that is, using a thorn to opening a vein on the wagon horse's neck, and lick the blood for nourishment.

The scene was inspired by a line in a report written by a rural policeman to his superintendents in Dublin, during the Famine era: "Lawless children are infesting the highways."

It gave me a vision that Ireland in 1846-47 probably wasn't so different from Sierra Leone in the 1990s or Ethiopia or, now, Darfur. Any society breaking down, through famine or civil war, when orphaned children are cast away and forced to live outside the law, must band together to stay alive.

Nowadays, in East Africa, those outlaw rebel kids carry AK-47s; that's about the only difference I can see to what was happening in western Ireland in 1846/47.
Visit Peter Behrens' website and read an excerpt from The Law of Dreams.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue