Before the First World War, young Billy Lange is captivated by a family friend, Karin Weinbrenner. In the novel’s opening lines, he states, “Her story is not mine, but sometimes her story feels like the armature my life has wound itself around.” So as art imitates life, Peter Behrens weaves the past and the present, and the settings of the Isle of Wight, Ireland, Germany, and Texas, in a gripping tale of love and loss at the time of Nazi Germany. Reunited in Frankfurt after World War I, Billy and Karin become fans of Karl May’s Winnetou tales, the most popular books published in Germany. They unite in the love of May’s common dream, that of escape to El Llano Estacado, the great high plains of Texas, spreading out like a promise of freedom and happiness. This dream reappears for them whenever they meet in the years that follow, as they face the deaths of their loved ones, the heady rise of Nazism, and their escape to America. Their childhood friendship deepens into a high-stakes love affair, only to culminate in Billy Lange’s startling realization about Karin’s impact on his life.
The novel is presented in a series of short bursts that mix non-fiction telegrams, pieces of letters, family histories, and scenes that shift not only location but time periods. Although seemingly disconnected, they resemble the bits and pieces of life experienced, life remembered, not in order, but as triggered by memory. The thread that unites the pieces lies in Billy and Karin’s love affair as they are caught in the mystical search for El Llano Estacado. Each connection through time offers them not only a refuge, but also a definition of who they are in the mindless, faceless atrocities they witness. Karin’s characterization is of particular note: she is elusive, strong, yet vulnerable. It is she who intones the haunting words, “Carry me.” Her power lies in her remoteness, and when Billy is with her, he is under her spell. And so are we.