Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

A fiction pick by Jean-Louis

Viking, 2016

In Days Without End Sebastian Barry achieves a masterpiece of narration. Our main character is young Tom McNulty who has fled the famines of Ireland, survived the crossing to Quebec, and has made his way to the Western USA in the late 1840s. Young Tom is glad to be alive but is not certain what that status confers upon him, if anything. Barry moves his character about the continents buffeted by the great historical upheavals of the times.

Young Tom must make his way as best he can and lands up teaming up with another teenager, John Cole, working as an entertainer for miners. Their youth and tenderness is marketed in female garb to lonely men who crave companionship. When they grow into young men, the two friends move on to the army and here the very last vestiges of innocence are lost as they find themselves in the throes of the so-called Indian Wars. And ultimately they move on from those atrocities to fight with the Northern States in the American Civil War. In these battles, McNulty recognizes his own kind among the men who are to be his new enemies. Poor soldiers–many who are Irish diaspora–are made to fight out the desires of others further up the food chain.

In all of these battles and travails, Tom and John have each other and even find and kindle a love that will sustain them. Along the way the pair save a young Sioux girl, Winona, and she becomes a daughter to the young couple. Sebastian Barry explores loyalty and love amidst a truly chaotic time in American history and he delivers a magisterial novel in doing so.

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