A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

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Reviewed by Harriet, 14 April 2020

In early times I was Ojinjintka, which means rose. Thomas McNulty tried very hard to say this name, but he failed, and so he gave me my dead cousin’s name because it was easier in his mouth. Winona means first-born. I was not first-born.

Back in 2016 I reviewed Sebastian Barry’s Costa prizewinning Day’s Without End for Shiny. Now, nearly four years later, A Thousand Moons picks up that wonderfully absorbing, lyrical story where it left off. Days Without End is narrated by Thomas McNulty, who arrived in America from Sligo as a seventeen-year-old, met and fell in love with his life partner John Cole, and fought in the Indian Wars and the Civil War.  That novel ends with Thomas, having been released from a spell in prison, making his way on foot back to his home in Tennessee. Waiting for him there will be John Cole, and also their adopted daughter Winona, who has lived with them since they rescued her as a small child from the devastation visited on her Lakota tribe, in which her whole family was murdered.

A Thousand Moons is Winona’s story. A few years have passed and Winona is now eighteen, and still living with her family on a scratch farm outside the town of Paris, Tennessee. She goes to town every day, as she is employed as a bookkeeper by Lawyer Briscoe, and she also goes to the dry goods store to buy items for the farm. For both these occupations she is glad that she has learned to speak good English, as otherwise she would quite likely be knocked down and kicked. ‘It wasn’t a crime to beat an Indian, not at all’. For this is a society rife with racism. Two siblings, the former slaves Rosalee and Tennessee Bouguereau, who live on the farm, are subject to it, and even John Cole, whose grandmother was Indian, is not exempt. The threat is twofold, partly from the rough Union soldiers who are now unemployed and looking for trouble, and partly from the terrifying ‘nightriders’ who are led by Zack Pierce.

The little family holds together as best it can, but events spiral away when Winona is brutally raped and is unable to name the perpetrator as she had been plied with whiskey and was more or less unconscious. Her best guess is that it was Jas Joski, a local Polish boy who has said he wants to marry her. Then Tennessee Bouguereau is attacked and his most precious possession, a Spencer rifle, is stolen from him. Winona decides to try to recover the rifle, and dresses as a boy, complete with gun and knife in her belt, to make the three-hour journey by mule to the renegade camp where she believes it to be. Though she doesn’t immediately find the rifle, she meets a fiery Chippewa girl named Peg, who soon joins the community at the farm and becomes Winona’s lover.

If you could make honey hover in the air would be Peg. If you could take a sliver of the wildest river and make it a person it would be Peg. If you could touch your lips against a pulsing star it would be Peg. The long, soft, sweet, fierce, dancing, piercing, kissed form of her.

One of the most striking aspects of Sebastian Barry’s writing is his ability to see beyond black and white moral certainties. In Days Without End Winona acknowledges the difficult truth that Thomas and John participated in the massacre of her Lakota family and then rescued and cherished her: ‘They both gave me the wound and healed it, which was a hard fact in its way’. In the present novel, Winona finds her way to the dwelling of the Confederate renegade leader Aurelius Littlefair. She thinks she is entering ‘the very hall of evil’, but instead finds a tidy, attractive house inhabited by a pleasant, courteous man, who confides in her his desire to see all children receive an education. As for Jas Jonski, she finds herself torn between the conviction that he was her violator and her pleasant memories of the kisses they had secretly shared – he was a good friend to her and she is sad to think of him in that other role.

I have to admit that when I first started reading this novel I wondered whether it was wise, or even possible, in today’s climate, for a white male novelist in his sixties to write in the voice of an eighteen-year-old Native American girl. Not that it bothered me in the least, but I feared it might be open to accusations of that dreaded bugbear, cultural appropriation. I’m happy to say that I’ve seen no signs of this, though no doubt it’s happening somewhere. Needless to say, Barry’s brilliant, imaginative, lyrical prose rapidly makes nonsense of any such doubts. The beauty of his writing, which I’ve always admired, is as crucially present as ever. There’s so much to love in this superb novel and can’t recommend it highly enough.

Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Sebastian Barry, A Thousand Moons (Faber & Faber, 2020). 978-0571333370, 272pp., hardback.

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