Faber and Faber Ltd/ 19 March 2020/ 256 pages/ Kindle edition/ 5*
Three years ago I read Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End which has to be one of the best books I’ve read, so I began reading A Thousand Moons with great anticipation of a good read. I wasn’t disappointed and I loved it. It continues the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole, and Winona, the young Indian girl they had adopted. It really helps if you have read Days Without End first to understand the characters’ history and relationships and how they got to this stage in their lives.
Winona is a young Lakota orphan adopted by former soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole.
Living with Thomas and John on the farm they work in 1870s Tennessee, she is educated and loved, forging a life for herself beyond the violence and dispossession of her past. But the fragile harmony of her unlikely family unit, in the aftermath of the Civil War, is soon threatened by a further traumatic event, one which Winona struggles to confront, let alone understand.
They are living and working on a farm owned by Lige Magan in Tennessee, about seven miles from a little town called Paris. It is now the 1870s, some years after the end of the Civil War, but the town was still full of rough Union soldiers and vagabonds on every little byway. Dark skin and black hair were enough to get you beaten up – and it wasn’t a crime to beat an Indian. Life wasn’t any better for the other two workers on the farm, black ex-slaves, Rosalee Bouguereau and her brother, Tennyson. These are dangerous times not just in the town but also in the woods outside the town from Zach Petrie’s gang of ‘nightriders’.
Winona remembers little of her early life, beyond seeing in the back of her mind a ‘blackened painting’ of blood and screaming, bayonets, bullets, fire and death. But their lives are full of love at the farm; Winona is loved as a daughter by Thomas and John, who are themselves lovers. She works for lawyer Briscoe as his clerk and ventures into town for supplies, which was where she met Jas Jonski, a young man who declares he wants to marry her. At first she hopes that she might very much like to marry Jas. But, then things go disastrously wrong. First racism rears its ugly head as Jas is white and the Paris townspeople began to talk. As his employer said he thought Jas had gone mad or wicked in some way – ‘to want to go marrying something closer to a monkey than a man’ was how he put it.
And then came the dreadful day when Winona was brutally attacked so badly that she shook for two weeks and something deep within her was shaking a long time after. She can’t remember at first what had actually happened to her, except that she was plied with ‘distillery whiskey’, nor who had carried out the assault. But all the signs pointed to Jas Jonski. Then Tennyson Bouguereau was also attacked, and their peaceful happy life was shattered. Winona set out for revenge. And in so doing she began to remember more about her early life and about her mother, a strong Lakota woman, full of courage and pride.
‘A thousand moons’ was her mother’s deepest measure of time. To her time was ‘a kind of hoop or a circle not a long string and if you walked far enough she said you could find the people still living in the long ago’ – ‘a thousand years all at once’. As she sets off on her quest it is the thought of her mother’s courage that enabled Winona to find her own courage – the ‘courage of a thousand years’.
I just love everything about this book, so beautifully written, rendering the way the characters speak so that I could hear them, and describing the landscape so poetically and lyrically that the scenes unfolded before my eyes; and the characters too, all real people from the American West of the 1870s, as though I was there in their midst. It would make a superb film.
Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His novels and plays have won, among other awards, the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize, the Costa Book of the Year award, the Irish Book Awards Best Novel, the Independent Booksellers Prize and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He also had two consecutive novels, A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008), shortlisted for the MAN Booker Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.
My thanks to Faber and Faber Ltd for my copy of this book, via NetGalley.