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 the temptation to search for Molly.
The author vividly imagines his period, but not his characters, who are little more than fate-buffeted puppets.