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Days Without End

August 21, 2017

After reading a lot of praise for Sebastian Barry’s novel Days Without End, I picked it up and almost immediately found myself in a reading reverie, the kind where you read the book slowly because you’re thinking about it all the time and you don’t want it to end.

Days Without End is about two boys who sign up for the U.S. Army in the 1850’s, fighting Indians out west, and later fighting for the Union in the Civil War.

The boys meet while trying to find shelter in a rainstorm when John Cole is fourteen and the narrator, Thomas, is “maybe fifteen…I looked as young as him. But I had no idea what I looked like. Children may feel epic and large to themselves and yet be only scraps to view.”

They are looking for
“work slopping out or any of the jobs abhorrent to decent folk. We didn’t know much about adult persons. We just didn’t know hardly a thing. We were willing to do anything….We were of the opinion our share of food was there if we sought it out.”

They apply at a saloon in a town named Daggsville that has a sign saying “Clean boys wanted” and get jobs as dancers in women’s clothing. The saloon owner tells them
“there ain’t no women in Daggsville but the storeman’s wife and the stableman’s little daughter. Otherwise it’s all men here. But men without women can get to pining. It’s a sort of sadness gets into their hearts. I aim to get it out and make a few bucks in the process, yes sir, the great American way. They need only the illusion, only the illusion of the gentler sex. You’re it, if you take this employment. It’s just the dancing. No kissing, cuddling, feeling, or fumbling. Why, just the nicest, the most genteel dancing.”

And this turns out to be true. Thomas says “every night for two years we danced with them, there was never a moment of unwelcome movements. That’s a fact.” After two years, however, they had to move on because by then “we was more like boys than girls.” This is more limiting for John Cole than for Thomas, who continues to shave close and dress as a woman as circumstances require it.

After their stint as dancers, they join the army. Both boys are philosophical about what they have to do to earn their army pay. Thomas says
“I seen the cold deeds of hunger. The world got a lot of people in it, and when it comes to slaughter and famine, whether we’re to live or die, it don’t care much either way. The world got so many it don’t need to….Thousands die everywhere always. The world don’t care much, it just don’t mind much. That’s what I notice about it. There is that great wailing and distress and then the pacifying waters close over everything, old Father Time washes his hands. On he plods to the next place. It suits us well to know these things, that you may exert yourself to survive. Just surviving is the victory.”

The description and the way the story is told make it compelling. For example, early on, Thomas describes a buffalo hunt:
“it was ten thousand hooves then drumming the hard earth….then the ground rose in front of us, and there they were again, the flood of buffalo, like a big boil of black molasses in a skillet, surging up. Goddamn blackberries they were as black as….You gotta treat a buffalo like a killer, like a rattlesnake on legs, she wants to kill you before you kill her. She wants to lure you on too, and then she wants to suddenly run sideways at you, knock down your horse in full flight and then come back before Saturday and stamp you to death. You never want to fall to the ground on a buffalo hunt, if I can just instruct you in that.”

When the herd passes on, they have killed six buffalo,
“and in the next while we know we will kneel to the task of skinning and we’ll take the best meat off the bones, and lash it to our horses in huge wet slabs, and leave the enormous heads to moulder there, so noble in their aspect, so astonishing, so that God Himself might marvel at them. Our knives flashed through. Birdsong cut the best. He made a sign to tell me, laughing, this is women’s work. Strong women if so, I signed, best as I knew. This was a big joke for Birdsong. He’s roaring, Man, I guess he’s thinking, these stupid whitemen. Maybe we are. The knives opened the flesh like they were painting paintings of a new country, sheer plains of dark land, with the red rivers bursting their banks everywhere, till we were sloshing in God knows what and the dry earth was suddenly turned to noisy mud.”

Later that night,
“the men hunched around, talking with the gaiety of souls about to eat plentifully, with the empty dark country about us, and the strange fabric of frost and frozen wind falling on our shoulders, and the great black sky of stars above us like a huge tray of gems and diamonds.”

I could quote from this book forever except that I need to resist so you can read some of it yourself. The title reference, however, is worth pulling out:
“We were dancing, we were clapping backs, we were telling old stories. Men were listening with their ears cocked, till they judged when they could let loose the laughter. Time was not something then we thought of as an item that possessed an ending, but something that would go on forever, all rested and stopped in that moment. Hard to say what I mean by that. You look back at all the endless years when you never had that thought. I am doing that now as I write these words in Tennessee. I am thinking of the days without end of my life. And it is not like that now.”

The story reminds me a little of News of the World because Thomas and John Cole informally adopt a little girl who has been displaced in the Indian wars, one who was captured after a raid and at one point claimed by the chief as his own niece:
“Winona is sure the prettiest little daughter ever man had. Goddamned beautiful black hair. Blue eyes like a mackerel’s blue back. Or a duck’s wing feathers. Sweet little face cool as a melon when you hold it in your hands and kiss her forehead. God knows what stories she seen and been part in. Savage murder for sure because we caused it. Walked through the carnage and the slaughter of her own. You could expect a child that has seen all that to wake in the night sweating and she does. Then John Cole is obliged to hold her trembling form against him and soothe her with lullabies. Well he knows only one and he does that over and over. He holds her softly and sings her the lullaby. Where he got that no man knows not even hisself.”

The other thing about this book that reminds me of News of the World is the matter-of-fact narration of atrocities by a person who has not been hardened by them:
“Why should a man help another man? No need, the world don’t care about that. World is just a passing parade of cruel moments and long drear stretches where nothing going on….Storms kill us, and battles, and the earth closes over and no one need say a word and I don’t believe we mind. Happy to breathe because we seen terror and horror and then for a while they ain’t in dominion.”

Having escaped from death in Ireland as a child, Thomas is never sure quite where he belongs. He has a “sense of two worlds rubbing up. Am I American? I don’t know.” Modern readers will see him as quintessentially American, caught up and shaped by events in this country where so many have come looking for refuge.

After the civil war, Thomas observes,
“The Sioux seem changed to me. Ain’t got no feathers in their get-ups and their hair looks cut by barbers. They got every strange scrap of whiteman’s clothes you ever saw for sale. Rags mostly….There’s a kinda look to them like we being met by tramps. No-good people. Their fathers owned everything here and we was never heard of. Now a hundred thousand Irish roam this land and Chinese fleeing from their cruel emperors and Dutch and Germans and boys born east. Poured in across the trails like a herd without an end.”

Even at the end of the book we don’t have to face an ending, as we know that Thomas made it back to Tennessee where, as he says near the beginning, “I write these words.”

There are many more memorable circumstances and characters and ideas to ponder than I have been able to mention. My recommendation to you is to read the whole book and then come back and tell me how much you enjoyed it.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. August 21, 2017 3:08 am

    High praise and a wonderful review! You have me convinced – I will seek this out 🙂

    • August 21, 2017 8:26 am

      Good! Then come back and tell me what you think. I believe it’s the kind of book people want to talk about when they’ve finished reading it.

  2. August 23, 2017 11:18 am

    Added this to my TBR. News of the World is my book group’s pick for this month. I am looking forward to that.

    • August 23, 2017 11:23 am

      I hope you like it as much as I did. News of the World is set slightly later than this one, after the civil war.

  3. August 23, 2017 9:09 pm

    Wow, this sounds amazing!

  4. September 4, 2017 12:27 pm

    I am as big a fan as you are. I did see the links to News of the World, too. Interesting to have this little spate of books creating alternative families. I wonder what it means that both of them feature daughters. That is a function of history, as far as I know. The recorded children returned from Native American tribes were girls. But here they could have rescued a boy baby just as easily.

    In any case, I loved this book. I can take home the Booker prize with no complaint from me.

    • September 4, 2017 2:19 pm

      No complaint from me, either!
      I think the girls are more useful in fiction as a way to present the male characters’ gentler, protective side. A boy baby could work as well but doesn’t have the same associations for many people.

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