The story opens with a corpse. A soldier’s body being prepared for burial in the then frontier state of Missouri circa 1855.
So I should not have been surprised by how violent the rest of the book was. But I had never really considered just how much violence was involved in the beginning years of the United States. Not systematically.
And I had just finished reading Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility which is as far removed from violence as you can get. It’s hard to believe that both Sense and Sensibility and Days Without End take place in the same century let alone within one lifetime of each other.
That Thomas McNulty and the love of his life “Handsome” John Cole survive it all and that their love for each other survives as well may be difficult for some readers to believe. But I think this something important that Days Without End asks us as readers–if we can believe the violence and the sorrow why can’t we believe the happiness and the goodness, too?
(The remainder of this review contians spoilers. I read this book without knowing anything about it. I’m glad I did so I’m giving the spoilers warning. Just know that I loved it. Loved it enough to make it my new favorite book.)
Thomas McNulty, just a boy of 13 or 14 years, ducks into the underbrush to get out of the rain where he finds John Cole, a boy a few years older, already hiding. Was it love at first sight? Thomas who narrates the novel never says. As far as we can tell from his story they have always been together, always been in love. There’s never a moment’s doubt about this, never a point where either boy strays.
Can we believe this about two young men in Civil War era America? There is no historical record for it, but it must have happened at some point. We believe all the horrors Mr. Barry shows us, all the things Thomas and John live through some of which come directly from the history books, some of which Mr. Barry invents.
Thomas and John are both refugees from Ireland. Both have escaped the famine by jumping on board ships sailing for Canada like so many Irish did in the 1850’s. Those who survived the voyage, one horrible enough to rival the middle passage, found themselves locked in typhoid ridden prisons by a Canadian government unprepared for so many immigrants. Starving in Ireland, they went without food on ship and were essentially left to starve again once they got to Canada.
Thomas and John survive. They leave Canada, walking south to find work in America. What they find after they find each other is a sign advertising for “clean boys who can dance.” Soon they are working in a frontier saloon entertaining the miners by dressing as girls and dancing with them-one dollar for ten minutes.
What follows is a series of jobs/adventures. A stint in the army fighting in the Indian Wars essentially exterminating Native Americans in California and Wyoming. Work in a minstrel show in Minnesota playing girls again. When the Civil War begins so many local men enlist that the show closes and the two are forced to join the army again. They soon find themselves in the notorious Andersonville prison camp where both the Union prisoners and the Confederate guards end up starving.
We can believe this. That so many suffered so much, that atrocities were committed against Native Americans, that the black soldiers were singled out for execution as soon as they were captured by the Confederates, that even our heroes Thomas and John could end up with blood on their hands, all falls within the realm of possibility.
So when the two help to rescue a baby Native American girl from certain death, risking their own lives to do it, when they take this girl back to Tennessee, when the three of them set up a household where Thomas can safely dress as a woman, when it looks like they will form a family and have a happy ending, why should we fail to believe that is also within the realm of possibility?
There’s a moment early in the book, early the two boys’ lives, when they are on stage and Thomas is singing a kind of love song to John. Thomas is dressed as a woman performing for a group of miners in a frontier town where very few women are to be found. Thomas can sing this one song, sing it so well that it brings tears to the men in his audience. And when things are going just right Thomas can declare his love for John Cole even give him a kiss on stage in front of everyone and everyone loves it when he does.
For pulling off a scene like that Sebastian Barry deserves a place on the Man Booker Prize short list. For that scene and for creating two characters I came to love, for giving them a supporting cast nearly as memorable as they are, for giving Thomas McNulty a voice realistic and sympathetic, for bringing so much of the tragedy that lies underneath the triumph of American history to life and still making this reader believe in a happy ending Days Without End becomes my new favorite book.