Peter Behrens Revisits his Family in his novel, The O’Briens

In a very telling moment, during a book tour through the northeast , Peter Behrens wasn’t sure if he wanted to display photos of members of his family, the same people he had fictionalized in his 2011 novel, The O’Briens. While at a small library in New Jersey, with many friends in the audience, he wasn’t able to get the projector set up to turn the photos in a sequence. “I don’t want to lock you up in a room with my relatives,” he joked, but you might say, he just might not have known how much of these people he wanted to expose to strangers. The patriarch, Joseph is described as if he was a tree. Strong, sturdy, not a tall man, but with the strength of someone with many roots to anchor him but unfortunately some that gave him dark moods. During the beginning of the 20th century he had to take the reins of his family, his father ran off to the Boer War and died, his mother unable and -sick of body and mind. His two brothers and sisters were dependent on him, he himself barely a teen. A good business head and strength of character allowed him to start a log cutting business in his native Canada and place the children in situations that stretched into their adult futures. Behrens wrote an earlier novel, The Law of Dreams, about earlier relatives who escaped to Canada from Ireland during the potato famine. That novel is driven by hunger and the endurance to live in an environment that refuses to feed your body or your soul. It is a different novel then his later saga because he had more distance from the characters, never having met them, grown up with them or loved them. Although The O’Briens is thoughtfully written and enjoyable to read, he can not distance himself enough to imagine them as fully bodied as he might have with strangers. These are well loved characters but what might they have done if Behrens had never met them?  He follows them from the early part of the century deep into the heart of World War II and then gives us a glimpse of the survivors in the year 1960. Clearly a worthwhile novel that might make us think of the strengths, weaknesses, inner longings and tragedy of our own families tossed about by war and bad choices.

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About valeri84

I am the cultural reporter for the Highland Park Mirror and I am also the Coordinator of Circulation and Public Relations for the Highland Park Public Library. I am responsible for adult programming for the library and for the past seven years have founded and organized The Friends of the Library Poetry Night Series. My poetry will appear in the Fall 2012 Patterson Literary Review.
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