Peter Behrens' family saga continues

First aired on The Sunday Edition (24/06/12)

peterbehrens-120.jpgPeter Behrens' follow-up to his critically acclaimed debut novel The Law of Dreams picks up the original story of the O'Brien family, who left behind famine in Ireland and found a new home in Montreal during the mid-19th century.

In The O'Briens, Behrens weaves a kind of coming-of-age story about Joe O'Brien set in Pontiac County, Quebec, during the early 20th century. It was a dynamic time in our country's history, filled with great highs like the roaring twenties and great lows like the Great Depression and world wars.

Behrens says that Joe O'Brien, a descendent of Fergus O'Brien, the central character in The Law of Dreams, was based "to some considerable degree" on his own grandfather, who was an Irish-Canadian in Montreal. Behrens says he barely knew his grandfather, but heard stories. He wanted to explore this tumultuous time in history through his eyes.

"I kind of wanted to follow him through his times, and his times ended up being most of the 20th century, and the novel kind of expanded in that way," Behrens said during a recent interview with The Sunday Edition. "It started out just being a quest to get to the heart of the several mysteries around this guy."

o-briens-125.jpgWhat resulted is an ambitious, sprawling family saga that sees Joe rise up from the poverty of his hometown to working around North America and eventually becoming a successful railway magnate. But despite his impressive accomplishments, Joe never feels able to escape the shadow of his past, which included the loss of his parents and an abusive stepfather. This leads him to occasionally seek solace at the bottom of a whisky bottle, a detail Behrens transferred to his main character from his grandfather. The experience of writing The O'Briens, which inspired Behrens to delve into his family's history through archived documents and conversations with his mother, made him even more aware of how our present and future are tethered to our past.

Behrens says that the novel is "not really about history, I hope, in any didactic sense. But it's certainly about how history -- familial, national, cultural -- follows behind us. We can never cut it loose. We're like these steamers heading upriver with these barges in tow, these bales in tow, and that's history. We don't have to look back at it, we don't have to know it, my family usually didn't, but it's there affecting our progress and our course."