‘A Thousand Moons’, by Sebastian Barry – Reviewed by Dave Kavanagh

A Thousand Moons, by Sebastian Barry

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (19 Mar. 2020)

ISBN-10: 0571333370

I am Winona

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.’

So opens the fifth of Sebastian Barry’s books that charts the often harsh life of the McNultys in pioneer America. 

While I waited for this book to arrive (book deliveries have been slow during the pandemic) I reread Barry’s Costa prizewinning ‘Days Without End’, which I first read shortly after its release in 2016. ‘Days Without End’ is a wonderful book written in Barry’s usual style that tells the story of narrator Thomas McNulty, from his arrival in America from Sligo as a seventeen-year-old, to meeting and falling in love with taciturn John Cole, their shared experience of fighting in the Indian Wars and then the American Civil War. Thomas and John adopt a daughter, Winona, after rescuing her as a young child from the devastation visited on her family and the rest of the Lakota tribe. That novel concludes with Thomas, released from a spell in prison, and making his way on foot back to the family’s new home, Lige Mangan’s (a fellow soldier’s) tobacco farm in Tennessee,  

‘A Thousand Moons’ is the story of Thomas McNulty and John Cole’s adopted daughter, Winona who is now eighteen years old. Winona still lives with Thomas as mother, and John as her father, she is employed as bookkeeper to the Lawyer Briscoe, and goes to the dry goods store to buy items for the farm, but she is aware of her position as an Indian, a person of less value than a freed slave. 

It wasn’t a crime to beat an Indian, not at all’. 

Winona places herself below the social standing of former slaves and siblings, Rosalee and Tennessee Bouguereau, who live on the farm, and she places them below John Cole, whose grandmother was Indian. 

The new peace they have found in their home, where they work hard to eke out a living, is threatened by the forces of ex Union soldiers who are aimless after the war in which little changed for them, and from the ‘nightriders’, ex-Confederate soldiers led by Zack Pierce.

The small family and their companions go to great ends to avoid attention, but when Winona is raped, events spiral out of her control. She admits to having drank whisky with Jas Joski, a local Polish boy who had being courting her and had proposed marriage. Though she expects Joski is the one who raped her, the events are unclear in her mind. She is hesitant to accuse him, torn as she is between the belief that he was her violator and her memories of his tender kisses.

When Tennessee Bouguereau is attacked and savagely beaten in retaliation for accusations made against Jas Joski, he is left mute. Winona considers her life. She fears that the events of her rape and John Cole and Thomas McNulty’s instinct to protect her will lead to trouble for them. She decides to settle her own difficulties.

Still unsure if Joski was her attacker, her suspicion falls on members of the ‘Nightriders’ (The ex-Confederate soldiers). Dressed in the garb of a boy and equipped with  Tennessee Bouguereau’s Spencer rifle and a knife, she tracks the ex-Union soldiers who are planning to attack the renegade Rebel camp, where she believes she may find her attacker. 

Though she doesn’t immediately identify her assailant, she does meet the Chippewa girl, Peg, who shortly after joins her and the community at Lige Mangan’s farm and not long after becomes Winona’s lover.

If you could make honey hover in the air, it 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.

The characters in this story are wonderfully drawn, but it is Barry’s writing style that really makes the narrative sing, the work is poetic while remaining forthright. And beyond this, Barry’s ability to take on a subject, and to write credibly in the voice of a teenage Lakota girl is an amazing but well executed feat. 

I will admit to approaching this novel with a little trepidation after the controversy of Janine Cummings’s ‘American Dirt’, but Sebastian Barry has the ability to write beyond such borders.

In ‘Days Without End’ Winona struggles with conflicting truths. Thomas and John were both actively involved in the attack and massacre of her Lakota family, yet they rescued and cherished her, calling her their most precious possession.

They both gave me the wound and healed it, which was a hard fact in its way’. 

In ‘A Thousand Moons’, Winona faces fending for herself as an adult. Her search for her rapist is the engine that drive the narrative, but the story is as much about self-identity and self-worth as it is about that one significant incident. The final resolution makes for compulsive reading. I would recommend this book to any reader who is passionate about language and good story telling. It is a book you will read once for the story and then again to relish each sentence.

Poets and writer.

Dave Kavanagh is Husband to Ber, Proud Father of Adam & Rou, Managing Editor of The Blue Nib, Organic Gardener and writer. His first novel, ‘The Tangle Box’ is due for US publication in May 2020