During childhood summers on the sunstruck Isle of Wight in the years before the First World War, Billy is entranced by Karin, the elusive daughter of a German-Jewish industrialist. Reunited on a Frankfurt estate in that war’s hungry aftermath, Karin and Billy become fascinated with tribal rituals found in the Wild West stories of Karl May, whose Winnetou tales are among the most popular books published in Germany. Coming of age in Frankfurt and Berlin, Karin and Billy share a passion for speed, jazz, and nightclubs. They also share a fantasy of escape—from darkening Germany, from history—to El Llano Estacado, the high plains of Texas and New Mexico, vividly reimagined in May’s fiction.
Intriguing characters braid this intricate and harrowing story together, from golden Edwardian summers to London under Zeppelin attack, Ireland on the brink of its War of Independence, and Germany collapsing into the Hitler era. As a society loses its civic and moral bearings, a childhood friendship deepens into a love affair with extraordinarily high stakes. Brilliantly conceived and elegantly written, Carry Me is an epic for grown-ups, an unusual love story, and a lucid meditation on Europe’s violent twentieth century.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||6 MB|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
This will become 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. I am telling it, so this story is also about me.
I was born 27 May 1909 on the Isle of Wight, in a house, Sanssouci, named after Frederick the Great’s summer palace at Potsdam. I was baptized Hermann Lange but for most of my life have been called Billy.
Sanssouci still sits on a cliff overlooking the English Channel, which on a fair day spreads out below like blue butter. The house is now a small, expensive “boutique” hotel and no longer called Sanssouci. The management offers weekend-getaway packages for anxious Londoners who desire sea views, the scent of roses, and shadowy island lanes dripping with fuchsia.
Before the First World War the house belonged to Karin’s father, Baron Hermann von Weinbrenner. He was a chemist and colorist and very rich: half the cotton shirts in the world were dyed with aniline colors he’d created. The kaiser had first given Weinbrenner his von, then raised him to the lowest rank of nobility after he married Karin’s mother, daughter of an Irish peer.
Baron Hermann von Weinbrenner was the second Jewish member of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes, on the Isle of Wight—Lord Rothschild was the first. Weinbrenner kept a pair of very fast gaff-rigged schooners, Hermione and Hermione II, and my father, Heinrich “Buck” Lange, was his racing skipper and trusted friend. Which is why my parents were living at Sanssouci and why I was born there.
Birthplaces, nationality—such details have consequences in this story.
My grandfather—also Heinrich Lange, but known in the family as Captain Jack—was a professional sea captain out of Hamburg. The Lange family had been traders and merchants (mostly in the Baltic) for a couple of hundred years before Captain Jack persuaded a syndicate of uncles and cousins to speculate in the California grain trade. Which meant purchasing San Joaquin Valley wheat at Port Costa, on San Francisco Bay, and transporting the cargo to Europe aboard their own three-masted bark, Lilith, to sell on the Hamburg exchange.
After some very rough weather on her westward passage round Cape Horn, Lilith was one hundred and seventy-one days out of Hamburg and a thousand miles off Acapulco when my grandmother Constance, who was Irish, went into labor. A couple of hours later my father was born in the master’s cabin, the delivery assisted by Captain Jack and by Joseph the Negro cook, who cried out, “Oh, the fine fellow! He is a bucko seaman!”
Christened Heinrich after his father and grandfather my father was known ever after as Buck.
Ten days later—six months out from Hamburg––Lilith dropped anchor at Yerba Buena Cove, and Heinrich/Buck was rowed ashore and registered as a loyal subject of the German emperor by Dr. Godeffroy, the consul at San Francisco.
The trouble starts there. Our story would have been quite different if, instead of being born on a German ship on the high seas, Buck had waited a few weeks to be born in a comfortable San Francisco hotel room.
Buck Lange an American citizen? How much simpler everything might have been.
But you can’t operate on history that way. An American Buck might have joined the American Expeditionary Force in 1917. I can see him answering the call to colors. He’d have been shipped to France and killed in one of the ugly, costly battles the AEF fought in 1918—
I don’t want to lose you over tedious genealogy and history that must be very dim to you. This is a story of real people who lived and died, about their times and what went wrong. I shall try to be honest even when it’s apparent I am making things up, delivering scenes I couldn’t have witnessed.
I know the truth in my bones. And that’s what I shall give you.
I’ll include documents—newspaper clippings, telegrams, even a film poster—from the Lange family archive, which McGill University has generously agreed to house. Calling it an archive is vainglorious. A few boxes on a library shelf are all it amounts to.
There are entries from Karin’s journal, her Kinds of Light book. When I read them I hear her voice. Even when her entries are merely extracts from her reading, I still feel her mind at work in the process of selection.
You’ll find letters here, from Karin, from others. I want you to hear the voices.
Otherwise they are all dead, aren’t they? Otherwise, no one remembers.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and reading list that follow are intended to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Carry Me, the captivating and poignant new novel by the acclaimed author of The O’Briens.
1. The novel opens with an epigraph, a line from W. B. Yeats: “In dreams begin responsibility.” What does this mean? How does it figure into the novel?
2. “It’s an extraordinary impulse in one that age to confront something as enormous and active as the sea without feeling the least intimidated. Karin was determined to enter that wild world and leave behind the calm and safety of shore” (page 11). What does Karin’s attempt to swim to America reveal about her character? How does that aspect of her personality evolve throughout the novel?
3. Each section opens with a selection of archival materials concerning the characters. What purpose do these letters and diary excerpts serve?
4. The theme of guilt weaves through the story. Which characters feel it most deeply, and which don’t seem to feel guilty enough?
5. Behrens plays with time, moving forward through the events of 1938 while also telling Billy’s and Karin’s stories from the beginning. What impact does this have on the reader?
6. Why do Karl May’s books entrance Billy and Karin so much? What does the myth of the Old West mean to them?
7. “ ‘The thing with bad news, when you hear it, is keep it inside, Billy. Hold it inside, don’t let no one else see it, Billy, and be brave’ ” (page 56). Hamilton offers this advice to young Billy—does he heed it? When does it prove most useful?
8. For many characters—Billy, Karin, Buck, Eilín, and Krebs among them—clothing plays a crucial role in how they see themselves and in how others treat them. What point is Behrens making?
9. At different points in the novel, parents sacrifice for their children. At what point do the tables turn and the children begin to sacrifice for their parents?
10. Billy is a refugee during World War I, and later Karin works to help Jewish refugees escape Hitler before becoming a refugee herself. How does Billy’s childhood refugee experience help him in 1938?
11. What influence, intentional or not, do Billy’s Irish grandparents have over his life decisions?
12. What is the significance of Billy’s name change?
13. Why does the scene at Karin’s brother’s grave (pages 209‒210), when she implores Billy to strip, and eventually, “Carry me,” have such resonance for Billy? Why is the novel called Carry Me?
14. How does Buck’s time at Alexandra Palace influence his response to Hitler’s rise?
15. Several peripheral characters reappear throughout the novel—Krebs, Kaufman, Anna von Rabou, Mick. What does each one represent?
16. The dream of crossing el llano helps Billy and Karin through some of their most difficult times. Billy writes, “Escapism? Of course it was. Escapism was for realists in Frankfurt then. Escapists saw things plain” (page 298). How does this dream help him?
17. Why is The Lamentation so important to Karin? What does it signify?
18. After the war, Billy decides to study geography and literature together. “I wanted to investigate in a rigorous way the hold particular regions have on the imaginations of artists,” he writes (page 435). How does this relate to what Behrens does in this novel? Which region has the firmest hold on his imagination?
19. How does the reality of el llano contribute to Karin’s decision at the end of the novel?
20. Why does Billy hold on to Karin’s belongings for so many years?
21. Behrens has Billy choose to end the story in a moment of pure happiness. Why?