The Next Chapter

Peter Behrens on his job herding cattle in Alberta

The author of the novel Carry Me talks about working on a cattle farm when he was 18.
Peter Behrens won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 2006 for his debut novel, The Law of Dreams. Carry Me is his third novel. (Winky Lewis)

Peter Behrens is the author of Carry Me, a historical epic about a high-stakes romance that has its roots in both World Wars. His first novel, The Law of Dreams, won the Governor General's Literary Award for fiction in 2006. Before he picked up the pen, though, Behrens spent a memorable summer working as a ranch hand in Alberta. This interview originally aired on April 25, 2016.

My dad had this vision of the American and Canadian West as these wide open spaces where men were noble and there was a lot of light and all that. So I had to become a cowboy. When I was 18 I got myself a job on a ranch by Caroline and Sundre, Alberta, near Red Deer. I worked there for four or five months as the most ignorant hand on the place. I spent a fair bit of time on horseback. I had a herd of 600 cattle in a really rough, forested piece of land in the Rocky Mountain foothills. Having anything to do with cattle meant working on horses, which was a lot of fun. But I also spent a lot of time on tasks that were real drudgery — you know, mending fences and making hay. That's about 80% of ranch work, in that kind of climate anyhow. Making hay to feed them through the winter and fences to keep them in.

I grew up in a world where everybody really took care of me and cared about my future. I was an indulged child in an upper middle-class family in Montreal. But I got out to that ranch and on the first day, I was on a horse. I'd rarely been on a horse before, and there I was on the first day, on a horse crossing the river on a full-flood spring tide, moving a herd from summer to winter pasture. About halfway across, I realized I could drown there and they don't really care. It was risky! That was sort of scary, but also hugely liberating in a way.

Peter Behrens' comments have been edited and condensed.