One of the greatest issues of the 20th century was that people had their identities thrust upon them by others due to some sort of arbitrary label. People were harshly judged by: their nationality, their religion, their gender, their social standing and even their occupation. Prejudices were harsh, ignorant and pushed to the extreme, very painful to endure. Yet those persecuted persons always seemed to dream about some distant land where they could dissolve to and become something different, something new. Peter Behrens has documented that reality in his complex novel Carry Me, brilliantly showing a common struggle of the human condition.
…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 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 have been waiting for a long time for an epic like this. The story deals with Billy Lange. Born in 1909 on the Isle of Wight, Billy’s father (Buck) is the skipper of a racing yacht belonging to a wealthy German-Jewish baron. Life there seems somewhat idyllic enough until the clouds of war begin to rise and angry eyes turn towards the family.
All accounts insist there was sunny weather all over England the day the war began. On fair days the English Channel was dark blue, and white manes of foam blew off the tips of the waves. Following my afternoon nap my mother instructed Hamilton to take me into the village and by ices at the shop. This was a rare treat.
Where was my father when Hamilton and I quit the house that afternoon? He might have been taking a nap himself or standing at the top of the cliff with his Leitz binoculars, looking out over the fair blue of the Channel. Cowes Week was on, but probably no so many yawls or racing schooners were out that afternoon, only battle-gray warships.
While Hamilton and I were enjoying our ice-cream treat at the village shop, a pair of policemen – one in uniform, one in plainclothes – arrived at Sanssouci, arrested Buck, and took him away.
I don’t remember if my mother tried to explain his absence or if I wept or sulked or how I otherwise behaved. And I have no memory at all of the hours and days that followed, when she went up to London trying to learn what had happened to him and was met by official blankness and scorn. In the aftermath of my father’s arrest as a German naval spy she must have been reeling, but I didn’t notice. Or don’t remember. It’s as though a light was switched off. leaving me in the dark, and nothing of those days left any impression that has lasted, not even the darkness.
The plot is at times disjointed. It jumps back and forth on the timeline and is not only told through a narrative by Billy but also moves along by letters, journal entries, and other material that have been archived. This disjointedness is a brilliant tactic in the novel. It gives the reader a feel of what Billy’s emotional life was at times like and a reader who ponders the story while reading it shares some of the uneasiness that was Billy’s life.
It was warm and close in Heidelberg. I could smell the river as we hiked up to the ruined castle. We sat on wall overlooking the town and smoked cigarettes. I started telling Mick my idea of heading out across El Llano Estacado aboard the motorcycle I’d seen in the BMW showroom in Frankfurt.
“And once you get across, Billy, what then?”
“You sound like my father.”
Buck was worried because I hadn’t fixed on a profession. My mother said the problem of my future was keeping him awake at night. If the law wasn’t what I wanted, then we ought to ask the baron about finding me a place at IG Farben when I graduated. With headquarters in Frankfurt, IG Farbenindustire was the largest corporation in Europe, fourth largest in the world, and the baron had a seat on the board of supervising directors.
My father wanted iron security for me because his life had been improvised, scattered, even reckless. Born out of sight of land. A jockey at fifteen. A cavalryman. An ex-prisoner. A man whose two careers – racing yachts in the English Channel and raising thoroughbred horses for the highest levels of European competition – were all about risk, chance, beating the odds.
The west wall of my bedroom at Newport was covered with oil company road maps, courtesy of the U.S. consul at Köln. I’d pinned the states in sequence and traced a route in blue pencil from New York to California that dipped south to cross El Llano Estacado. That blue line floated over me as I slept and was the first thing my eyes fixed on when I awoke. Sometimes it seemed a skeleton, the bones of a dream. Sometimes a skeleton key, unlocking a life I couldn’t even imagine yet.
The afternoon was too hot and close to inspire us to take in the sights of Heidelberg. Neither of us had any interest in being tourists. I could feel a thunderstorm starting to build. The azure sky was foaming over with gray. The air was thick, with scarcely a breeze, even along the Neckar.
That was where we met the two girls, Lilly and Coco.
Carry Me by Peter Behrens is a complex novel. It closely reflects a section of the human condition of the 20th century that is personal yet was a common experience for many people. Not a light read but one that is worthy of one’s time.