I’m always a sucker for an American Civil War book, but I didn’t realize that this was going to be one until I started reading it. (I should have read the back of the book, where it is quite clear that this is set in 1850s America). I had been more attracted by the author, Sebastian Barry, whose A Long, Long Way and The Secret Scripture I had read before. Those two books were both set in Ireland, and I expected this to be the same.
It was only when I started reading that the memory floated back of a fellow postgraduate working on the Irish involvement in the American Civil War. Thomas McNulty, the main character in this book, is such a man: driven as a 17 year old from famine-struck Ireland, he joins the army to fight in the Indian Wars and there he befriends- indeed, more than befriends – falls in love- with his brother-in-arms John Cole. I certainly hadn’t expected that, and was brought up with a jolt when Barry comes out and says it: “And then we quietly f**ked and then we slept”.
Before joining the cavalry, and both destitute, Thomas and John work as ‘girls’ on the stage in a mining town starved for women, until they get too old and big to carry off the pretense. Needing work, they join the cavalry. Their platoon is charged with ‘clearing’ the land for white emigration, and they encounter the Oglala Sioux chief Caught-His-Horse-First first in an act of generosity, then betrayal. Discharged from the army, Thomas and John head for the midwest, taking with them Winona, the niece of Chief Caught-His-Horse-First, to form a make-shift and unusual family. They rejoin the theatre-circuit, and Thomas reprises his cross-dressing act. When the Civil War comes, they join up on the Union side. It is an ugly war, and its ugliness pursues them into their post-war life.
It’s strange: I was completely drawn into this book and finished it in an afternoon. Yet, when writing this post, I was left mainly with impressions and I confess to having to look up other reviews to remember the actual plot. The book as a whole made a stronger impact than the individual details.
In reading this book, there were flashes of Cold Mountain and unexpected echoes of Blood Meridian. There is certainly violence, but somehow it is dream-like and disconnected. The narrative voice in this book, speaking in the present tense throughout, in my head sounded to be a completely American accent, without even a trace of Irishness. It is, essentially, a love story, with beautiful descriptions of landscape and climate. I don’t often read a book with a film in mind, but I expect to see this on the screen one day, as it has a very filmic, epic quality.
My rating: 8
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library