After signing up for the US army in the 1850s, aged barely seventeen, Thomas McNulty and his brother-in-arms, John Cole, fight in the Indian Wars and the Civil War. Having both fled terrible hardships, their days are now vivid and filled with wonder, despite the horrors they both see and are complicit in. Then when a young Indian girl crosses their path, the possibility of lasting happiness seems within reach, if only they can survive.
This is without doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year. I was spellbound, the storytelling is superb, the characters are unforgettable, and the setting comes across so vividly that I had no difficulty in imagining the locations. Add to that the narration written in Thomas McNulty’s own uneducated voice, fluent and richly descriptive and so easy to read, despite the mix of Irish and American slang.
Thomas is writing, looking back on their lives, to a time when it seemed that years of their lives were endless:
Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on for ever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. (page 39)
He is a young Irish immigrant, 17 years old when he and his friend John Cole volunteered to join the US army. Thomas, had left Sligo, starved and destitute, for Canada and then made his way to America where he had met John under a hedge in a downpour and they became friends and secretly lovers for life. He describes John Cole as ‘my love, all my love.‘ They began their life together working in a saloon in Daggesville, dancing and dressed as girls, until they were seventeen and they could no longer pass as girls:
But nature will have his way and bit by bit the bloom wore off us, and we was more like boys than girls, and more like men than women. John Cole anyhow in particular saw big changes in them two years. He was beginning to give giraffes a run for their money, height-wise. Mr Noone couldn’t find dresses to fit him and Mrs Carmody couldn’t stitch fast enough. It was the end of an era, God knowed. One of the happiest works I ever had. (Page 12)
The fact of their love underlies the whole book. But the next stage of their lives was so different, fighting in the Indian wars against the Native Americans as the settlers moved west and then in the Civil War. I’m not keen on reading about wars, battles or fights of any kind but I found the descriptions in this novel were exceptional, truly heart-rending, although I would have preferred fewer scenes of war and massacre. Barry doesn’t spare the details and clearly depicts the horror and waste of war, commenting in Thomas’s voice: Killing hurts the heart and soils the soil (page 225).
After the wars have come to an end they leave the army and the rest of the book follows their lives together with Winona, a young Indian girl, who they come to regard as their daughter. But danger is never far away …
In a way I thought it was odd how this book held my attention. I was surprised by a number of things – the very long paragraphs, sometimes extending to several pages – the strange grammatical errors and figures of speech, and at times passages written in the present tense. And yet, Barry’s prose is so lyrical and poetic that I think this is what made the book so compelling to read. Each time I picked it up to read I became lost in its pages. It is not perfect, but then I often find that that doesn’t matter when I’m so totally captivated by the writing, which is why I’ve given this book 5 stars.
Amazon UK link