Law of Dreams

Law of Dreams

3.9 11
by Peter Behrens

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The Law of Dreams tells the story of a young man's epic passage from innocence to experience during The Great Famine in Ireland of 1847.
     On his odyssey through Ireland and Britain, and across the Atlantic to “the Boston states,” Fergus is initiated to violence, sexual heat, and the glories and dangers of the industrial


The Law of Dreams tells the story of a young man's epic passage from innocence to experience during The Great Famine in Ireland of 1847.
     On his odyssey through Ireland and Britain, and across the Atlantic to “the Boston states,” Fergus is initiated to violence, sexual heat, and the glories and dangers of the industrial revolution. Along the way, he meets an unforgettable generation of boy soldiers, brigands, street toughs and charming, willful girls – all struggling for survival in the aftermath of natural catastrophe magnified by political callousness and brutal neglect.
     Peter Behrens transports the reader to another time and place for a deeply-moving and resonant experience.  The Law of Dreams is gorgeously written in incandescent language that unleashes the sexual and psychological energies of a lost world while plunging the reader directly into a vein of history that haunts the ancestral memory of millions in a new millennium.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

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"The law of dreams is, keep moving."

Few events in history have had the tragic and far-reaching consequences of Ireland's Great Potato Famine. Hundreds of stories have drawn their inspiration from those dark days, but rarely has a work of fiction achieved the beauty of Behrens's novel.

After witnessing the deaths of his family during the blight, it seems inevitable that Fergus, too, will follow them into that place of darkness. Yet for the first time, he ventures beyond the family farm and leaves Ireland for Liverpool, eventyally embarking on a dangerous Atlantic voyage to America. No ocean crossing, however, could be more dramatic than the journey Fergus makes from innocence to experience. His search for a new life will introduce him to a world unimaginable to the son of an Irish tenant farmer. Prostitutes and hustlers, gentlemen and thieves -- these are the members of Fergus' new family. But it is out of this new world that Fergus finds the three young women he comes to love, and who will ultimately bring Fergus his greatest joy and most profound sorrow.

Vividly re-creating a place and time more than a century old, The Law of Dreams is breathtaking in its attempt to carve art out of history - that it succeeds so brilliantly is testament to Behrens's unique and prodigious skill as a writer. (Holiday 2006 Selection)
The New Yorker
Behrens’s impressive, swiftly paced saga tracks the life of an Irish boy after his family dies during the Great Potato Famine. Fifteen-year-old Fergus O’Brien takes up with a group of child bandits in Limerick, then makes his way to North Wales, where he works as a “tip boy” (a dangerous job that involves emptying carts of earth being cleared for the railroads). By the time he sets sail for Canada, hoping to make a living as a horse dealer, it is hard to believe that only a year has passed, such is the variety of his experience. In scope and subject, Behrens’s work recalls Liam O’Flaherty’s epic novel “Famine”; both writers have a stark style admirably suited to conveying the horrors of starvation and despair. But Behrens’s language also has a visceral rhythm, and his similes meld the humble with the lyrical: whales rise “hissing” in a river, light “stutters” off an iron roof.
Ron Charles
In the life of this determined young man, Behrens illuminates one of the 19th century's greatest tragedies and the massive migration it launched. A novel that animates the past this vibrantly should make volumes of mere history blush. "Life burns hot," Fergus thinks, and so do these pages.
— The Washington Post
Kevin Baker
In his first novel, Peter Behrens writes about the famine and its consequences as if he were an eyewitness. The Law of Dreams is an absorbing, unsparing and beautifully written account of one young man's escape from the charnel house that Ireland became…if his story is harsh his writing is seamless, and often gorgeous. He is adroit at creating, then dispatching, indelible characters in a few deft strokes…
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
Screenwriter Behrens follows his 1987 story collection, Night Driving, with an ambitious epic that follows a hapless wee lad from the rotten potato fields of 1847 Ireland to a New England horse ranch. Fergus O'Brien, the teenage son of a tenant farmer, is sent to a workhouse after his parents are murdered. He quickly escapes, joins a band of brigands and, after raiding his former landlord's farm, drifts to Dublin and then to Liverpool, where he is primed to work as a "pearl boy" (read: male prostitute). He hits the road again, this time settling in Wales, where he works on a rail line and meets Red Molly, a married woman who becomes his lover and traveling companion to America, where he plans to become a horse trader. The book veers dangerously close to melodrama on more than a few occasions, and Fergus, for all the contretemps encountered and indignities suffered, remains thin and unconvincing as a narrator. But readers may be able to overlook Behrens's authorial missteps and enjoy the sprawling, cinematically rendered immigrant story. (Sept.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
In this novel, which is based on his own family history, screenplay and short story writer Behrens (Night Driving) has captured the harshness of the Irish experience in the late 1840s, when blight ruined the potato crops and thousands of people were ejected from the land on which they lived and worked-land owned by distant British aristocracy and managed by local lease-holding farmers. The novel follows the struggles of Fergus O'Brien, who suffered under this ruthless, feudal-like system and was ravaged by the starvation and disease that descended upon the Irish people. A survivor, Fergus joins up with a band of young outlaws, seeks refuge in a Liverpool brothel, and seesaws through myriad emotions. In time, armed with growing self-awareness, he and a female companion decide to start anew in America. The narrative offers terse, emphatic statements that strike at the essence of a character's feelings. Sometimes this approach lends universality to a character or situation; Behrens's depiction of Fergus's perspective, for example, reflects the mysteries and difficulties flowing between men and women as they try to form relationships. Recommended for larger public and all academic library collections.-Maureen Neville, Trenton P.L., NJ Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Irish paupers flee famine and pestilence in screenwriter Behrens's grim first novel. Fergus O'Brien is the teenaged son of sharecroppers on the Carmichael farm. When the potato blight destroys their food source in 1846, the O'Briens resist eviction but fall ill with typhus. Sole survivor of the fever and of the family cabin's destruction by fire, Fergus is sent to a workhouse, soon closed by plague. He encounters the Bog Boys, a gang of juvenile outlaws captained by a girl named Luke. They attack Carmichael's food hoard, resulting in the massacre of the landlord's family (including Fergus's first love, Phoebe) and of the Bog Boys (including his second love, Luke). Fergus joins a cattle drive to Dublin, from which he takes ship for Liverpool. On the journey, he meets Arthur, who tells him of work to be had as a railroad-building "navvy" in Wales. The duo rest at a bordello, where Fergus is nearly lulled into a cushy life as a male prostitute. Instead, he heads for Wales, signs on as a navvy and lodges at Muldoon's, where he meets his third love, Molly. Fergus and Molly head back to Liverpool and, with the help of a kind innkeeper, ship out as steerage passengers bound for Montreal. Molly suffers a miscarriage and mood swings, but she augments the couple's finances by running a card game onboard. When Fergus breaks a promise to Molly by climbing the mast to spot land, she makes a wager with fur-trader Ormsby, who wants to enlist Fergus as an apprentice, that will later cause Fergus to abandon her. He disembarks with Ormsby, who falls ill with fever in Montreal. Fergus uses his ailing patron's ample cash to launch a horse-dealing business and is last seen making for Vermont, resisting thetemptation to search for Molly. The author vividly imagines his period, but not his characters, who are little more than fate-buffeted puppets.
From the Publisher
“Absorbing, unsparing, and beautifully written . . . [a] masterly novel.”
–The New York Times Book Review

“Stunningly lyric . . . a work of richly empathetic imagination that reminds us once again of how powerful historical fiction can be in skilled hands.”
–Los Angeles Times

“Superb . . . an emotional epic bearing echoes of Melville and Ondaatje, conveying scents and shimmers of a vanished world under the skin of our own.”
–Jonathan Lethem, author of You Don’t Love Me Yet

“Extraordinary . . . a novel that animates the past this vibrantly should make volumes of mere history blush.”
–The Washington Post Book World

“Sprawling, cinematic, exquisitely detailed, exactingly researched, and keenly felt . . . a powerful work of excavation that achieves what historical fiction often can’t–credibility, along with a sense of the transportive.”
–Boston Phoenix

“Riveting . . . Behrens turns the archetypal immigrant’s journey into Homeric epic.”
–The Providence Journal

“A beautifully written, poetically inspired tale of heroism, love, yes and sex, and the triumph of the human spirit.”
–Malachy McCourt, author of A Monk Swimming

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Steerforth Press
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Read an Excerpt

The Law of Dreams

A Novel

By Peter Behrens

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2006 Peter Behrens
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-58642-170-0


Eating Pain

HE WOULD SLIP FROM THE CABIN before the rest of them were awake and come down the mountain, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. With his dog, he'd course the slick, foggy slope, then down along the river and across Carmichael's meadows. Feet brushing cold wet silver grass. Slipping the straw rope off the fanatic dog, freeing her to nose under hedges, at dry burrows, her tail swinging.

Approaching the farm, they'd pass Carmichael's rich black mountain of manure and the stone haggard, crowded with hay.

The Carmichael farmyard was flanked by stone walls six feet high, built to withstand — built for war. The only entrance an iron gate.

The yard was paved with blue stone. He had always distrusted the alien firmness of the stone on his heels. And the gaunt, whitewashed farmhouse eyeing him so bitterly: the whitewashed face of disregard.

He had always felt deficient here. He had tried convincing himself he did not but why else the constant self-argument, the tingle of thoughts inside his head rising up like doves off a perch, fluttering and billing, all confusion?

He would come hoping to catch a glimpse of Phoebe Carmichael in the steel light of morning, milk pail in her hand.

His old playmate. He had known her all his life, as he knew everyone.

Seeing him waiting at the gate, she'd offer him a drink.

You wouldn't get it any fresher.

No, miss.

He loved Phoebe's narrow pink feet on the blue stones. Her bare forearms, and the clean fabric of her gown and apron.

She was the only female of the Carmichaels. Her mother a consumptive, dead at twenty-nine and buried in the yard of the Presbyterian church at Mountshannon.

Setting the pail down on the cobbles, Phoebe took a blue china cup from a pocket of her apron and handed to him.

Dipping the cup then raising it to his lips, he'd pause before tasting the milk.

Try some yourself, miss?

No I will not, Fergus. But you go ahead.

The milk scent sweet and cloudy. He'd drink in two swallows, warm and thick with fat, coating his teeth.

Thank you, miss.

You're welcome.

And every night he'd lie awake, in the cabin on the mountain, listening to his parents breathe. Phoebe became an ember in his mind, burning down through his thoughts, glowing. Could she feel what he felt? Did she lie awake in her father's house, thrilled with trouble, wishing for a tug on the warm red line connecting them?

HE HAD always lived on the mountain, his people tenants of Carmichael.

Farmer Carmichael who kept a red mare. Name of Sally. He'd purchased her for a hunter in a time when the strong farmers of the district had a fad for hunting and shared the expense of a pack of hounds.

Red, with a black mane. Not tall, but deep-chested, strong. Plenty of heart.

The first Carmichael in the country had been a bloody soldier. Protestants, English speakers, the Carmichaels held the farm as lease-holding tenants of the earl of Liskerry the great landlord, tiarna mór. No one had ever seen tiarna mór himself, said to hold ground all over the country and live in Rome. Carmichaels subtenants lived in cabins on the mountain, each family with their cabin, their pig, their allotment of potato ground. In exchange the cabin people owed the farmer a certain measure of labor. Working in Carmichael's fields at harvest-time, they often would catch themselves staring at red Sally in the little pasture where she grazed. Some of them hated the big mare, and others felt a pride of connection. Telling themselves that Carmichael's Sally surely was the finest bounder in the country.

So sexual and easy, her ramblings in that little field.

Fergus relished the red mare. He used to creep into Carmichael's stable, climb into Sally's stall, and settle himself on her back. No one had ever caught him there. The stable — infused with scents of old hay neat's-foot oil, corn — felt safe. It was warmer, drier, than any cabin on the mountain. He'd sit aboard the mare an hour or two, legs splayed out, fingers combing out her stiff mane.

He was fifteen before he attempted to ride her. Until then he hadn't felt the need of mastering anyone. Climbing aboard in secret — that had been enough. Then one afternoon, lying on the grass, head resting on one elbow, watching the lovely mare graze — her lips pulled back, blue gums and yellow teeth cropping grass blades — he suddenly felt that he must get aboard her and ride.

The feeling came on him suddenly, like a hunger pang.

He sat up and looked around, wary.

There was no one in sight. It was midsummer. A lull between hay cuts. The meadows were empty, silver sun rippling across.

He got up and approached the mare softly. At first she shied, but each time he renewed his steady discourse in Irish, speaking calmly, and at his fourth approach she let him catch hold, twisting his fingers in her mane, laying his cheek against her neck, smelling the sun's heat there.

He led her to the stone wall, climbed the wall, and swung a leg across. When he kicked lightly with his heels the mare ambled on the grass, pausing to sniff at a butterfly twitching through the poppies.

They slowly perambulated the little pasture. When Fergus knotted his fingers tighter in her mane and bunched with his knees, Sally broke into gorgeous canter.

He found it difficult to stay firmly seated, and began springing higher with every stride. Catching a sideways glimpse of Farmer Carmichael standing at the gate, Fergus lost his concentration. Relaxing his grip, he was pitched off her back, landing hard on hands and knees, stunned.

The mare shook herself, stopped, bent to munch. Looking up, Fergus saw Carmichael striding across the field toward him. The farmer wore an old black swallowtail coat, muddy boots, and a straw hat tied under his chin with a scrap of purple ribbon. He carried a blackthorn stick.

Wary of a beating, Fergus stood up hastily, looking around for a rock to defend himself with.

The mare rubbed her feet on the grass.

"The knees!" the farmer shouted. "She'll want a good strong grip! Comes from the knees!"

He had a brown, chiseled face. The inflexible lips of the English. Phoebe, his daughter, had the same lips. She liked to play-bite.

"Use your hands gentle, but keep your knees firmly. She will carry you like a cloud if you have the right hands and strong at the knees." He peered at Fergus. "You're Mike O'Brien's boy yes? Grandson of old Feeny?"

Fergus nodded.

There was silence troubled only by curlews sputtering over, winging sharply toward the byre. Carmichael reached out and caught his mare, grabbing a fistful of her mane. Sally sniffed at his pockets, and the farmer dropped his stick in the grass.

"Let's see you aboard."

Fergus hesitated, unsure. At the same time angry. It was impossible to be around a farmer for very long and not feel the ancestral glow of tedious, unilluminating anger.

"Come, boy!" The farmer interlaced his fingers, making a footstep, insisting. "Quickly now!"

Better to be up above the farmer, looking down. Fergus stepped into Carmichael's hands and was instantly thrown up across Sally's warm back.

"Hold her steady, boy." Carmichael circled around, eyeing them keenly. "You're sitting like a plowboy Straight back! Don't slump!"

Fergus let go of the mane and thrust his shoulders back.

"Don't use hands at all," the farmer instructed. "Only knees. Come now. At a walk. Step her along. There it is. There it is."

For half an hour Fergus walked then jogged the mare around the little field while Farmer Carmichael criticized his seat and called out instructions. "Feel her muscles working. Feel them slide, feel them knit. You'll never sit properly until you know your horse down to the bones. Loosen up and keep loose. Your knees are your voice with her. Your hands come later."

AS HE walked home that afternoon, up the mountain, four young men — one a cousin — stopped him on the path. Before a blow had been struck, while the cousin was still boiling up insults, calling Carmichael's mare a sorry lump of leather; a bag of goat bones; a mustard fuck, Fergus lowered his head and ran at him, butting him in the chest and knocking him down. Seizing a stick, he held off the others until his cousin stood up, grunting like a bull. Fergus threw away the stick and ran. They gave chase, screaming like a pack of hounds, and one of them finally brought him down with a brute shove that sent him sprawling.

He lay with nose pushed into the decaying leaves, his cousin's knee pressing in the small of his back.

"That girl's a goat-boned whore," the cousin whispered in his ear, giving his arm a twist. "Say it, Fergus. The little cunt Phoebe, your sweetheart, is nothing but a goat-boned whore."

But he would not. He never could bring himself to give in. He would eat his pain.

His cousin wrenched the arm back another inch so the joint was grinding on the rim of its socket.

Eating pain. It was a kind of food. Made you dizzy.

He was aware of the young men's raucous laughter. Sunlight splitting though the oaks. Moldy leaves scratching his eyebrow. Scent of turf.

Phoebe would smell like cold water or honey, or the black turf. When a turf bank was sliced open, the strongest, purest fragrance was available only if you got down on your knees, put your nose very close, and breathed it in. He always felt compelled to do so and the scent always spun him — clobbered his chest, strove at his heart so he felt his heart as a muscle working. Other turf cutters — men and boys kicking at their spades, constantly relighting their pipes — laughed at him kneeling on the ground, inhaling, losing himself. No one else felt such a need — or if they did, they stifled it.

He could barely hear the taunts. They seemed as distant as the crying of hawks on afternoons when he lay upon his back in the rough of some mountain pasture and listened to their hunting remarks, watching them floating on cushions of pure heat.

Phoebe Carmichael, neat and clean.

He let out a sigh, and his cousin must have realized the hopelessness of the situation, because he released the hostage arm and stood up quickly, kicking Fergus hard on the hip then stumbling away up the mountain with his companions.

Three barefoot boys howling a rebel song.

You could eat pain and come out alive. It was a silent meal. You could eat pain, even find a relish. You ate unhurried. You made certain to taste every bite. You could eat pain; it wouldn't kill you.


Mi an Ocrais

LATE SUMMER BEFORE the new potatoes were lifted was mi an ocrais, hungry month, when his father returned home to work on Carmichael's harvest.

The only season of the year his parents were reunited. His mother was red-eyed and weary in those few blazing weeks, before her man left once more. Together they drank poitin, which she would not touch the rest of the year. Everyone on the mountain was famished then — teeth glaring, eyes bright in sunburned faces.

His mother and father had gone off together just before Carmichael's harvest began, leaving Fergus to feed his little sisters on Indian meal porridge. When they returned, three days later, he knew from their sun-flayed appearance, from the grass in their hair and the scratches on his fathers face, that they had been roaming, engaging, sleeping on grass, drinking poitin, living on butter and birds' eggs.

His mother caught him looking at her and must have sensed his anger and confusion. "Life burns hot, Fergus. Too hot."

He resented such willfulness, their capacity to abandon every responsibility, including their children.

"You think I'm a robber," his father, Míchéal, told him.

They had been standing in Carmichael's best field of wheat, the rosy field, whetting their blades. People on the mountain had names for each corner of Carmichael's farm. Their language knew that land like a bee knows a flower.

Fergus's mother insisted that the rosy field had been red once in flowers.

Míchéal said, "In blood."

The rosy field. The black field. The field of the altar. Carmichaels did not use the names, perhaps were unaware they existed.

Míchéal could whet a blade like no one else could. Whet to pure sharpness, to an edge like a spoken word, barely there. And he cut and mowed faster and cleaner than anyone else could on the farm.

"You are a grim fellow. You look at me like I've stolen something," Míchéal said, testing the hone by scaling his thumbnail and peeling back the thinnest film of tissue.

They owned nothing, certainly not the harvest tools. The iron blades and wooden handles belonged to the farmer, to Carmichael.

Little girls scampered like mice over the wheat stubble, gathering stalks in armfuls and setting them down in stand-up sheaves. Women forked the stand-ups into an oxcart driven by Phoebe's brother Saul.

Míchéal was still the strongest hand for harvest, but Fergus would surpass him eventually. Not this year. Next year, perhaps. Insects cackled as they worked through the crop, feeling the sun's stare on the back of their necks. Friction of grain dust made red the creases inside their elbows.

When Farmer Carmichael came out to see how the cut progressed, he spoke to Míchéal in English, and Fergus felt the grit of that language washing over him, scraping and stimulating; the language that poured out of Phoebe's mouth. Wanting to feel closer to her, he kept fitting his thoughts in English as he worked up and down the rows alongside Míchéal and the others, swinging and cutting, swinging and cutting, though English words — or none he knew — didn't suit such work. Not really.

After the harvest was made, Míchéal would leave them again. Going for the north, traveling with a gang of barn builders, wall builders, going up into Ulster, sometimes so far as Scotland, and not returning before the next August, when he'd show up at harvest once more. Míchéal rarely spoke of his life on the roads, but Fergus had imagined it anyway: new barns and fresh walls. Stone towns and salmon rivers. Fat fields of horses grazing.

In another week or two Míchéal would be leaving.

"You're no good," Fergus said when they stopped at the end of another row and were sharpening again. "You're never here. I can't call you my father. You're no good for us."

Míchéal shook his head. "You're such a farmer. You're too stuck to that ground of yours."

"Someone has to be."


Carmichael dispensed potato ground in patches, annual arrangements, and no one ever had the same patch twice; but Fergus always felt his ground was his. Once he had his crop in, the patch belonged to him, and he'd kill or die for it.

He could raise enough potatoes on a quarter acre of well-dug beds to keep his mother and sisters through the year — nearly. In those last, blazing weeks of late summer, just before the new crop was lifted, they had to survive on yellow meal — but his potatoes yielded at least ten months of perfect nourishment. The only tool needed to cultivate them was a spade to open the lazy-beds and turn and chop the soil a little. No plow, no horse. To his regret he could not keep a horse on mountain grass. A horse would not stand it, and any plow would burst between the rocks.

Each spring he spaded his beds and laid the sets. Summer they came up in green stems and beautiful, viney flowers. The pig was kept on potato scraps and sold to pay the annual rent — they never tasted the meat. He himself consumed five pounds of potatoes every day, steamed, boiled, or mashed. Over the winter, his mother might make a kitchen, using salt and a few herrings, but usually it was potatoes plain, and he never tired of that food.

Potatoes were not made or cut, like the farmer's hay or corn; they were lifted


Phytophthora infestans

THE LAST NIGHT OF CARMICHAEL'S harvest they burned off the straw and the farmer fed his cabin people a supper — ham and butter, wheat bread and apples — on the side of his best meadow, under oaks, wind ringing through their branches. It was dark before the tenants started back up the mountain. Fergus walked ahead of his parents, who were carrying the little girls, asleep. The night was warm.

They had passed the first cluster of cabins when he first caught the stink of putrefaction, physical and wild, rolling down the mountain path with all the violence of a loose cartwheel or a drunk with a club. "What is that terrible stink, my God?" his mother cried. "They've been tearing the graves!"

Unbaptized infants were buried under stones so dogs could not get at them. The piles of stones were sometimes shifted from one grave to another too early, and the dead left unprotected — but this wasn't that smell. It was too large.


Excerpted from The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens. Copyright © 2006 Peter Behrens. Excerpted by permission of Steerforth Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Peter Behrens' short stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Tin House, Saturday Night, and The National Post and have been anthologized in Best Canadian Stories and Best Canadian Essays.  He is the author of a collection of short stories, Night Driving (Macmillan). Behrens was a Fellow of the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and held a prestigious Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University. He was born in Montreal and lives on the coast of Maine with his wife and son.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Law of Dreams 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
a heartfelt depiction of ireland during the famine. beautifully written and deeply moving. highly recommended.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
poignant, touching, heart rending and insightful. Brutally honest and raw.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
woodsy More than 1 year ago
Great read if you like historical fiction. This is a very interesting story of the Irish famine and one boys journey through it to a new life. It is well written and page turning. I came away with new found knowledge and appreciation of the suffering and hardships during this period in history. Really enjoyable read.
RockyMtnHigh More than 1 year ago
I received this book for Christmas last year and really enjoyed reading it. In fact I think I finished it in a couple days because the plot kept you guessing. I think it was definitely interesting to read how the Irish were treated by others during this time period. Very good!
Guest More than 1 year ago
For some reason I expected this to be a more history story than a personal journey of a young man. The book read like it was writted by the young man himself and his self journey and the changing Ireland at the time. I really enjoyed it.