Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Days Without End
by
Sebastian Barry

Rating:

Thomas McNulty and John Cole are just boys in the 1840s when they meet under a hedge in a Missouri rainstorm. McNulty is an orphan from Ireland and Cole, from New England, has been on his own for a couple years. They know they will fare better if they stick together. A strong friendship protects McNulty and Cole during their early days as dancers in a miners’ saloon and later as soldiers in the Indian wars and the Civil War. Questions of morality, faith, and fate run through McNulty’s poetic narrative in a style like nothing else, mastered by Sebastian Barry. It’s an impressive feat that a writer can take a piece of ugly American history and throw a moving balance between love, friendship, honor and duty and the brutal violence that comes with following orders.

We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.

Together they enlist in the army, travel endless days and nights and are charged with the dirty business of clearing the western land of Native Americans. Fierce battles between their troops and tribes from the Sioux make the reader question again the senseless killings and how soldiers, many with nowhere else to go, must reconcile their actions with a need to survive.

McNulty wonders if God is looking out for him. He’s never sure.

The world got a lot of people in it, and when it comes to slaughter and famine, whether we’re to live or die, it don’t care much either way. The world got so many it don’t need to.

Somehow McNulty and Cole survive the Indian wars, but not without deep scars and their time fighting the Rebels during the Civil War presents them with many of the same moral dilemmas, especially when they come face-to-face with their enemies.

There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster.

And despite the ugly time period, the men form strong bonds with their commanders and fellow soldiers, for it is in battle that characters are formed. Bonds break, however, when unspeakable violence causes Barry’s characters to look out for themselves, the point at which the story changes from broad battles to personal struggles.

The only solace McNulty finds is in his deep love for Cole, and for Winona, their adopted Sioux orphan girl. The men in their camp and the people they meet later accept both Winona and their gay relationship, a surprisingly modern portrayal that represents one of the author’s important themes: acceptance. Through McNulty, Barry shows a complicated country of diverse backgrounds and cultures, trying only to survive, but willing to defend themselves to the death.

The end, despite violent and often hopeless events throughout the story, points to happier days, as McNulty reasons with optimism:

Life wants you to go down and suffer far as I can see. You gotta dance around all that.

McNulty’s character is a genius and eloquent storyteller, with poetic insights that explain love from all sides. I highly recommend this terrific book. While short (259 pages), you will not want to rush through it because Barry has carefully chosen every meaningful word.

I had not read anything by Sebastian Barry before this, but he is a well-known and highly respected Irish poet, playwright and novelist. He has won many awards, is a two-time Man Booker Prize finalist and has won the Costa Book of the Year prize for Days Without End (2016) as well as his 2005 novel, A Long Long Way.

On a side note, Barry relates that McNulty’s character was shaped by his teenage son, Toby, who recently came out as gay. Barry dedicated the book to Toby and says in an article from The Guardian (read here), “My son instructed me in the magic of gay life.”

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Short story review: “Red Moccasins” by Susan Power

Welcome to an occasional feature on Book Club Mom. Short reviews of short fiction. This selection comes from the 1993 edition of The Best American Short Stories, edited by Louise Erdrich.

“Red Moccasins”
by
Susan Power

Rating: 5 out of 5.

How does Anna Thunder, a young Sioux widow, react to the loss and disease that surrounds her on the Standing Rock Sioux reservation?  It’s 1935 and, during a North Dakota blizzard, Anna’s only child, four-year-old Chaske, is battling the final stages of tuberculosis.

In this short story, published in The Best American Short Stories – 1993, Susan Power shows the strong cultural connection between family, death and tradition.  The story revolves around an intricate dancing costume that Anna is sewing for her niece Bernadine.  A special pair of red beaded moccasins will complete the costume, but they become instead an instrument of overwhelming grief and pain.

In the “Contributors’ Notes” in this collection of short stories, Power discusses how she grew up listening to her mother’s stories of growing up on the Sioux reservation.  When she’s asked why so many of her characters have to die, she says,

I explain that in our community – whether it be reservation or urban Indian area – death is a familiar companion who steals away too many of our young people.  I cannot ignore his presence, pretend I do not recognize his face.

She adds,

In writing “Red Moccasins” I had two images in mind:  the beguiling red slippers and a little towheaded boy who was dying.  He was rocked by a full-blooded Sioux woman – his mother – who was unable to keep him in this world.  I knew the images belonged together, but it became my mission to discover the connection.”

This moving story has all the elements of great short fiction.  Powerful images, descriptive details, and strong human reactions as her characters are slammed with painful loss.

Susan Power is a Standing Rock Dakota author from Chicago, Illinois.  She is a graduate of Harvard University and Harvard Law School.  After a short career in law, she switched to a writing career and earned an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

In addition to essays and short fiction, she has published two novels.  The Grass Dancer won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Best First Fiction.  Roof Walker is a collection of fiction and non-fiction.  Her latest novel, Sacred Wilderness, was published in February 2014.  She teaches at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota.

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