Days Without End: A Novel, by Sebastian Barry
This is a funny, touching, and surprising book. I knew it was about an Irish immigrant before and during the Civil War. Beyond that I jumped in without knowing what to expect.
Young, small-framed Thomas McNulty comes to America, escaping the great famine in Ireland. The book is narrated through his perspective. Starving his way west he links up with the equally impoverished John Cole while hiding under shrub in a storm. The first work they find together is as “dancing girls” in a mining town saloon. As boys they still have a feminine look, and a saloon owner can’t find women in the remote town to dance with the miners. Cleaned up in dresses and wigs they offer a touch of romance and home to lonely miners.
When they begin to grow too big to fit into their dresses they leave the town to sign up with the US Cavalry in the pre-civil war years. Between appalling genocidal raids on Indian camps it soon becomes clear that Thomas and John have more than a friendship. They’ve fallen in love. Following one attack they meet a native girl named Winona who has been taught in an Indian school. When they leave the cavalry they take her with them as a daughter.
The story takes them through other phases. A return to the saloon owner who now wants Thomas to dress as a woman being courted by John in a stage tableau for more female-starved miners. They leave Winona in care of an elderly friend when they join up to fight on the Union side in the Civil War, and after the war they all move to Tennessee to try their hands as farmers.
The author manages an amazing blend of humor, romance, and horror describing the war against native Americans and the Confederacy. Thomas makes one last trip west to assist the officer who led them both in the Indian war and Civil War. He ends up shooting a sergeant who tries to kill an Indian girl who was raised in the fort. When he returns he’s put on trial for desertion and murder.
In all it’s a wonderful book about friendships, a love affair, and an alternative family at an unexpected time and place. There is violence sprinkled throughout the book, and those who haven’t adjusted to modern LGBT ideas would probably be put off … or learn something, who knows? For anyone looking for a well-written book with charm and surprising turns this one is a standout.