Sebastian Barry is a highly respected and fêted Irish author, and this latest book has already won the Costa Best Book award for 2016. I’d been on the verge of buying it all year, and I’m not sure what held me back. I finally bought an ebook version and started with that. I also picked up the audiobook to finish the last few chapters.
This book has received a mixed reception among our little Booker longlist reader community. Liz loved it but it didn’t work for Teresa or Rosario, and I’ve seen similar criticisms in a Goodreads New Fiction group I lurk on. I’m a sucker for Western-set litfic, both historical and contemporary, so I was pretty sure I’d like this and I did.
The story opens in 1851, when the narrator, Thomas McNulty, meets his future friend, lover, and partner, John Cole, under a hedge in Missouri. They’re both young and broke and join together to find ways to support themselves, falling in love along the way. After a couple of years masquerading as young women to serve as dance partners for miners, they outgrow their roles and join up with the Army. As soldiers they remain side by side, experiencing the Indian wars on the western plains of Nebraska and Wyoming, the Civil War in Maryland and Virginia, Andersonville prison camp, and finally farm life in Tennessee (with interruptions along the way). They adopt an American Indian orphan, Winona, and together the three of them make a family that does its best to stick together through some of the country’s most turbulent times.