This post was written for, and originally published by, Bookmunch.
Days Without End is a tale of war, between men and against hardship, yet is narrated with a lyrical optimism even from within the worst of the carnage portrayed. Set in nineteenth century America, where white settlers are intent on removing the indigenous population before turning on each other in the Civil War, the voice of the narrator, Irishman Thomas McNulty, is richly authentic. He understands that the world cares little for the lives of the dirty poor such as him, but that life still has a value for all who can find a way to live.
McNulty spent his early years in Sligo, Ireland where he watched his mother, sister and then father die from starvation due to the potato famine. Alone and desperate, he crept aboard a ship bound for Canada, somehow surviving the hunger of the voyage and then a deadly fever on arrival. He makes his way south where, sheltering under a hedge in Missouri, he meets another young wanderer named John Cole. From then on they face their hardships together.
“I only say it because without saying I don’t think anything can be properly understood. How we were able to see slaughter without flinching. Because we were nothing ourselves, to begin with. We knew what to do with nothing, we were at home there […] Hunger is a sort of fire, a furnace. I loved my father when I was a human person formerly. Then he died and I was hungry and then the ship. Then nothing. Then America. Then John Cole.”
The boys find work in a saloon before joining the army. For a set of clothes and the promise of food they do whatever is ordered. This mostly involves killing Indians, living under threat of attack, or passing time playing cards. Life on the frontier is one of peril – from enemy, weather and deprivation – but this is familiar and to be endured.
When released from the army Thomas and John travel to Michigan to join a minstrel show being run by the former saloon owner. They take with them Winona, a young Indian girl whose family they helped slaughter. These three set up as a family, until the major from their former unit asks the men to join a new regiment he is setting up in Boston to fight for Lincoln against the southern confederate army.
Although the fighting is barbaric, the day to day conditions endured also take many lives. The men must find ways to survive alongside those who consider the Indians, the people of colour, even the Irish to be vermin, better for all if eradicated. Thomas’s love for Winona, who he regards as his daughter, will cost him dear.
A tale of men and fearsome battles, yet the quality of the writing proves it worthy of a wider audience than may take interest in such base subject matter. The characters, period and locations are vividly painted; the brutality but also the beauty of existence emotively portrayed.
Any Cop?: This is a fine literary achievement worthy of its Booker longlisting. Despite this I am not entirely convinced it attains sufficient reach to be the winner.