Obviously Sebastian Barry (middle-aged, White, Irish male) didn’t read the memo on cultural appropriation when he wrote this book in the narrative voice of a teenaged, lesbian Lakota girl.
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.p.1
When we meet Winona, she has already been swept up into a white man’s world. And if you have read Barry’s earlier book Days without End, you have already met Winona, when she is adopted by Thomas McNulty and his Indian-heritage lover John Cole after her family is killed in a massacre attended by McNulty and Cole themselves. It is now 1870 and the unconventional family are living together on Lige Mangan’s tobacco farm outside Paris, Tennessee, along with former slaves Tennyson and Rosalee Bouguereau. Winona, growing into womanhood, is shyly entering into a naive and rather ambivalent engagement with Jas Jonski, a Polish boy who works at a nearby store. Plied with whisky, she is raped and does not even have the words for what has happened to her. Nor can she remember who raped her, and her shame and uncertainty triggers off a cascade of other events.
The Civil War might be over and the Union may have won, but racism and menace are quickly rising in this former Confederate area, especially for ‘others’: Native Americans, freed slaves and even Union soldiers – especially if their homosexuality became public knowledge . I’ve been listening to Heather Cox Richardson’s series on Reconstruction, but history alone cannot capture the feeling of impotence against the night-riders and the inexorable closing in of racism clothed in official dress, as positions at the head of militias and the courts are turned over to racists. The ‘goodies’ are not always good: nor are the ‘baddies’ completely bad.
This book is part of the McNulty/Dunne family that Barry has been exploring through his fiction over many years. In many of these books, the connection is only by surname and a bit of back history. This book, however, is more closely tied to Days without End. I can only imagine that new readers would be baffled by the cross-dressing and loving relationship between McNulty and Cole, and backwards references to murder and jail.
When you think about it, Barry really is pushing the boundaries of plausibility with a homosexual adoptive couple, an adopted Lakota daughter, and then her falling in love with another young Native American girl. That he manages to do this so quietly and naturally speaks to the complexity of his characters and the contradictions of the world that they face. My reading of this book was really enhanced by my recent listening to podcasts about Reconstruction, and I think that I enjoyed it even more than Days without End.
My rating: 9/10
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library