Carry Me by Peter Behrens
Peter Behrens is the author of The Law of Dreams, winner of the 2006 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, followed in 2011 by The O’Briens. His new novel Carry Me is inspired by the life of his parents and grandparents.
Carry Me takes us from the years just before the First World War into the present time, with most of the novel taking place in Germany during the 1930s, where Peter Behrens ancestors lived at that time.
In a short Globe & Mail interview Peter Behrens was asked, “Would you rather have the ability to be invisible or time-travel?” His answer “Time-travel, of course …….. I want to go back to Munich, 1923, and do something fatal to that Austrian with the mustache.” Yes, well don’t we all wish someone had done so. But, no one did and Hitler somehow made his way to power, forever changing Germany and the world.
Carry Me begins in 1913, with chapters alternating between that time and 1938, with the earlier years eventually catching up to the later years, before moving rapidly forward. The narrator, Hermann “Billy” Lange tells the story of his own family, his German father “Buck” and his Irish mother Eilin, and that of the Weinbrenner family, the German Jewish Baron von Weinbrenner, his Catholic wife the Lady Maire, and their daughter Karin.
Billy and Karin were both born in Ireland on the estate of her father, Sansoucci. It was, at the time, very much a place without cares or worries. The Baron summered at Sansoucci where he raced his prize-winning sailboats. He was also the generous employer of Billy’s parents who lived on the estate. With the onset of the First World War everything changed for the Weinbrenners and the Langes.
We read about Billy’s childhood and his memories of the First World War, his father’s imprisonment and his mother’s desperation.
After the war Baron von Weinbrenner re-established himself in Germany, this time founding a horse racing and breeding business. His stable succeeded with the help of Billy’s parents, once more employed by the Baron and living on his estate.
During these years as Billy and Karin come of age, we see the gradual rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. The families talk about people “coming to their senses” but of course they never do – things continue to escalate – it becomes more and more dangerous to be a Jew, or anyone who appears to disagree with the new regime in Germany.
This novel is the first I have read that makes “sense” of the way in which, slowly but so very surely, there is a progression from a movement that seems outlandish, that no one believes will last, to one that destroys the nation and so much of the world for so many people.
Woven into the narrative is the fascination that Billy and his friends have for the Winnetou novels of Karl May. The children are totally absorbed by these stories of the American west and the young Apache chief and his friends, acting out their own stories with bows and arrows in the woods of the Baron’s estate. Both Billy and Karin, growing up in the 1930s see the world of El Llano Estacado, the mesas and tablelands of the Southwestern United States, as the ideal of freedom, and a place they eventually attempt to reach when it becomes clear in 1938 that they must leave Germany.
In an interview about this novel Peter Behrens says that we are all profoundly affected by the family members who have come before us, dragging the past with us, as we, ourselves, become the ancestors and are part of the stream that is life. Mining his parents lives for much of the story, and adding his own imagination of a reality that could have been, Peter Behrens has made his novel, all of this and more.