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A Thousand Moons: Resilient spirit of Sioux girl in a hostile, white world

Fiction: A Thousand Moons

Sebastian Barry

Faber & Faber, hardback, 272 pages, €18.99

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Life of mayhem Sebastian Barry’s narrator in A Thousand Moons is the engaging Sioux teenager Winona. Photo by Frank  McGrath

Life of mayhem Sebastian Barry’s narrator in A Thousand Moons is the engaging Sioux teenager Winona. Photo by Frank McGrath

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

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Life of mayhem Sebastian Barry’s narrator in A Thousand Moons is the engaging Sioux teenager Winona. Photo by Frank McGrath

When we last encountered Winona, the Sioux girl who had been rescued from certain death, she was with her saviours Thomas McNulty and John Cole and they were working on a farm in Tennessee.

So ended Days Without End, Sebastian Barry's award-winning 2016 novel narrated by Thomas, who had fled the Famine in his native Sligo and had enlisted in the US military, where he and his fellow soldiers perpetrated atrocities on Winona's Lakota tribe and other Native Americans.

He had also met up with John Cole and they had fallen in love, pursuing a relationship that appeared to go unnoticed by the stern military authorities who presumably would have taken a very dim view of same-sex liaisons.

Such matters, though, weren't really touched on, the author more focused on the bloodletting that permeated the narrative, with Thomas and John directly involved in the military's mission to "pacify the country", first by massacring the Native American population and then by ruthlessly putting down the Confederate rebels during the subsequent civil war.

In both of these conflicts, our main protagonists were little more than killing machines tasked with "leaving nothing alive", including women and children, and there were at least 10 extended sequences in which Thomas indulged in "slaughter without flinching". There was no denying the ferocious, indeed sickening, power of these scenes, but it was hard to reconcile them with the gentler aspects of Thomas and John, most manifest in their unlikely love for Winona, whose relatives they'd been complicit in butchering and whom they'd brought to the relative safety of rural Tennessee.

That's where we left them in Days Without End and they remain there in A Thousand Moons, still farming but with Winona, now in her late teens, taking over from Thomas as the story's narrator, and a very engaging one at that.

It is now the 1870s and the town of Paris, Tennessee is "an uneasy place" in the aftermath of a civil war that has traumatised these disunited states of America and that has left a disaffected "rabblement of rebels and night-riders causing mayhem everywhere".

The mayhem happens to Winona herself. Although adored by her surrogate fathers, she has no illusions about her lowly status in a hostile, white world where "it wasn't a crime to beat an Indian" and where "in the minds of the townspeople, I was not a human creature but a savage".

And so it happens that early in the novel she is indeed beaten and worse, though she doesn't know who violated her. Was it shifty young Jas Jonski, who wanted to marry her? "Did he tear me like that?"

She has blocked the memory out, though the reader may wonder that she can't recall who attacked her.

Thomas and John want immediate, indeed summary, justice, but the decent local sheriff wearily tells them: "You ain't out west here. This, the new world of homesteads and pickled pears and peace and holding off, and sheriffs come with all that". To which John Cole replies: "We ain't going along particular with all that. Because no one care a curse about an Indian -or a black man".

And there are others sympathetic to her, notably the kindly lawyer Briscoe, for whom she works as a bookkeeper, having been taught how to do so by her doting fathers.

Meanwhile, the local military are planning a raid on night-riding renegades in their wooded hideaway and Winona tags along, where she gets shot in the arm by a girl her own age called Peg, who she then saves from drowning.

Subsequently, in a direct echo of the relationship between Thomas and John, they become lovers, though this is treated so glancingly that you wonder why, as in the previous novel, the author hasn't made more of this strand.

And after Winona faces a trial for a crime she did not commit, the last few pages of the book end hurriedly with a flurry of unlikely revelations and confessions.

This sequel is a lot less violent than Days Without End and the reader may be grateful for that and for the endearing, confiding voice of Winona, who comes from "the saddest people that ever were on the Earth" and yearns for "the sacred stupidity of ordinary life".

It's her touchingly resilient spirit that gives the book its beating heart.

Indo Review