I did not really expect Sebastian Barry to write a Cowboys and Indians novel, but that is what he has done. But it is not that straightforward. The cowboys are not real cowboys, driving a herd up from Texas or wherever to the railheads. The story begins long before that era with people starving in Ireland and those who have the strength finding their way to the ships that lead them to the new world. That is what happens to Thomas McNulty, the narrator of this story, and he ends up hiding from the rain under a bush in Missouri. That is where he meets the love of his life, Handsome John Cole.
The second seminal event is the meeting with a Lakota warrior, Caught-his-Horse-First, and that in turn leads John and Thomas into the adoption of a Lakota girl, Winona. [The Lakota are known to history as the Sioux, a name given to them by French-speaking trappers from Canada. The name means cut-throat]. That is all the plot that you really need to know.
The story spans the Indian wars, the American Civil War, the death camp at Andersonville, the vicious racism of the post-bellum years in the Southern States, and it tells it all through the somewhat bewildered voice of Thomas McNulty. The one constant is that Thomas loves John and Winona, the one as a husband and the other as a daughter. They have to adopt many stratagems to survive as a family, one of which is Thomas, who is not very tall, disguises himself as a woman.
This is one thing that had never occurred to me. Many of the dancing-girls in the saloons were boys. There were so few women west of the Mississippi that the saloon owners had no choice but to employ pre-pubertal boys. So, Marlene Dietrich’s song “Go, see what the boys in the backroom will have” in “Destry Rides Again” was not so far from the truth.
This is a truly entrancing story. The language is extraordinary. It has a beauty that will pierce your heart. There are sentences of riveting power, my favourite being “The major’s as busy as Jesus at a wedding”. Now you have to know this story, but if you do I guarantee that you will laugh. It is that kind of book. There are phrases and sentences that will take you by surprise, and make you laugh, although the story is tragic.
I cannot imagine that this story will find much favour in Trump’s America. It is the story of the American Dream as nightmare. It is not “Birth of a Nation” or “Gone with the Wind”. It is much more like “Soldier Blue” or “Little Big Man” and these are films that very few people remember now. It is a story of two genocidal events – the Irish Famine and the Indian Wars – and it tells of how three ordinary people coped. Handsome John Cole, Winona and Thomas McNulty will remain in your memory for a very long time.