“Carry Me,” the latest novel by part-time Mainer Peter Behrens, is both poetry and cartography. The narrative layers themes on top of one another, phenomena that could have symbols on a map key: war, dreams, nationhood, decomposition, light. The story is told by Billy Lange but is, as he says, “the story of a young woman, Karin Weinbrenner. Her story is not mine, but sometimes her story feels like the armature my life has wound itself around.”
Billy is born in 1909 on the Isle of Wight, and “Carry Me” takes us through his life until he is an adult, living in Canada. Karin is a childhood friend and later Billy’s lover, daughter of his parents’ employers. Their lives and the lives of their parents are marked by the impact of the First and Second World War. “Birthplaces, nationality – such details have consequences in this story.” War, and its justifications, require that readers follow the complex intersections of birthplace, ethnicity, religion, and language, details that lead to Billy’s father’s internment, Karin’s father’s death, and Billy and Karin’s ultimate passage from Germany to the United States in 1938.
The story is told in patchwork, beginning as Billy’s reflection and then sliding back and forth between 1938 and earlier years, titled by person and place: Irish Sea, when Billy and his mother travel to Ireland to live with her father; Mick, Billy’s childhood friend in Ireland who shows up again later in the story, a horseman on the Isle of Wight; The Danubian Oddball, the story of when Karin and Billy hear Hitler speak in 1927. The narrative includes a collection of documents interspersed between chapters. There are excerpts from Billy’s grandmother’s diary, records from ship logs, letters sent between characters, and pieces of Karin’s notebook, which she titled “Kinds of Light.”
This notebook is Karin’s own map, memories of place characterized by the quality of light. It also contains excerpts from her reading, including the books of Karl May, a German writer who penned American Westerns. The American West threads its way through the story, beginning when Karin and Billy meet as children and Karin, already entranced by May’s stories, gifts Billy her bow and arrow. The setting of May’s books, “El Llano Estocado,” becomes a world of dreams, where both Billy and Karin build futures.
It’s only later, years later, driving through that Staked Plain country, that Billy notes, “Of course there really is no country of dreams that also exists outside of the dreams.” Behrens, who lives part-time in Brooklin, likely, has his own map of dream country. He grew up in Montreal but in his 20s spent time working on ranches in the Canadian Rockies and leading white water trips on the Rio Grande. He spends a few months each year in Marfa, Texas.
In this novel, Behrens has mined truths so skillfully that in reading they can slip by unnoticed; they’re never glaring or contrived. They leave the reader with a feeling Billy describes as he’s driving across Germany: “I experienced for the first time the tranquility and poise that most of my life has been accessible only in liminal space, at speed, on highways across open country, occasionally in airports. The pure air of transition.”
Great writing keeps readers on this threshold, in liminal space, wanting to know and understand more than literature or life will allow, anxious for the next big lesson. “Carry Me” is full of this kind of searching, characters looking for a way to map their lives against war and love and change. In a beautiful scene on the Isle of Wight, a young Billy and his mother examine atlases. They find the birthplace of Billy’s father and then of Billy, in each place Billy said, “my mother would prick a tiny, discreet hole with the tip of a sharpened pencil… When she pricked the map I could almost feel the pencil point’s sharp little nudge. Here you are. Here. Here. Here.”
Heidi Sistare is a writer and social worker who lives in Portland. She attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies and has work published in The Rumpus, Slice Magazine, and other publications. Contact her at: