Off the Shelf: A THOUSAND MOONS
By Sebastian Barry Viking Press ISBN 9780735223103 2020 238 pp.
Even before the COVID19 virus became the pandemic that it has become, our country has been threatened – democracy, civility, and truth have faced new norms of behavior. In A Thousand Moons, we are reunited with Thomas McNulty and John Cole, from Sebastian Barry’s last book (previously reviewed in this column), the Costa- winning Days Without End,which was set against the American Indian wars and the civil war.
At the end of that nove,l Thomas and John, soldiers and cross-dressers and a loving couple, have settled down in Lige Magan’s tobacco farm outside Paris, Tennessee with an oddly assorted family, including ex-slaves Rosalee Bouguereau and her brother Tennyson, and Thomas and John’s adopted daughter, Winona.
Winona, a Native American orphan, whose real name, she tells us is Ojinjintka, which means “rose” in the Lakota language. They are an oddly assorted family in which race and gender are all mixed up.
It is Winona who narrates A Thousand Moons, picking up the story when she is becoming a young woman. Winona is clever and John has taught her how to read and write and she is working for lawyer Briscoe, who is committed to reconstruction and racial justice at a time when the postwar hopes of a new south are beginning to crumble and the defeated confederates are agitating and stirring racial violence.
At the novel’s opening, Winona is hoping to marry Jas Jonski, a Polish boy who works at a local store and doesn’t seem to mind that she is a Native American, unlike most of the Paris inhabitants. One-night Winona is raped- although she nor Rosalee has a word for what happened. Winona was drinking whiskey and has no clear memory of who raped her, although she knows it may have been Jas. The rest of the book is the complicated fallout from the violent despoiling. The denouement is one that this writer didn’t see coming.
The novel’s prescient value is its strength in light of our current state of affairs as far as race relation are concerned, not only African Americans but also towards Native Americans. White people stole this land from the Native Americans and then built this country in part on the backs of the slaves we brought here. Although not a ‘political’ novel in any sense, the book provides a historical peek at the sordid beginnings of our racial history.
This is the sixth novel reviewed in Off the Shelf by the current Laureate for Irish Fiction. Like its predecessors, I found it a TOP SHELF read.