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Days Without End

Sebastian Barry

Days Without End

Sebastian Barry

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Days Without End Summary

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Days Without End is a 2016 novel by Irish playwright, poet, and Laureate for Irish Fiction Sebastian Barry. Set in the final decades of the American Indian Wars, it is told by Thomas McNulty, a former soldier who falls in love with a man and, later in life, realizes that he identifies most strongly as a woman. Thomas vividly recalls various gruesome and dramatic war scenes, which are starkly contrasted in his memory with his experiences of intimacy and family. He comes to realize that the ignorant and violent acts that are normally committed in American society are just as entangled in his identity as the experiences he freely chooses.


At the beginning of the novel, an older Thomas McNulty looks back on his youth and years spent fighting in the American Indian Wars. Born in Sligo, Ireland, a small, remote port town, he experienced tragedy early in life, when his entire family died in the Great Famine. Thomas joins a boat full of Irish men, women, and children set for North America; it stops first in Canada, then makes its way to the South. He disembarks in Missouri, and is homeless and companionless, until he meets another orphan, John Cole, while resting under a bush. Their encounter starts a lifelong friendship. First, they go to Daggsville, and are hired to crossdress to entertain the guests of a saloon. Thomas and John also start a more intimate relationship, though they do not disclose it to anyone.


When both boys are old enough to join the army, they enroll, and are sent to the Indian Wars. Thomas’ first battle is against the Yurok people. He finds that he enjoys fighting, as well as the community that forms among fellow soldiers. Later, while sheltering for winter and on the brink of starvation, the soldiers meet the Oglala Sioux tribe, led by Caught-His-Horse-First. The chief gives them enough provisions to make it through winter, though several still die of other illnesses. They then move to Fort Laramie, and attend a meeting between Native American and United States leaders. Tilson Neale, the leader of Thomas’ troop, signs a treaty with Caught-His-Horse-First. The gesture towards peace is quickly violated by two colonists, who enter Sioux land without permission and are killed.


The troop leaders respond by trying to attack the Sioux village. Only part of Thomas’ troop survives. A malicious sergeant named Wellington vows to kill Caught-His-Horse-First. For two years, they search for him, until finding the village where he is hiding. They massacre the villagers, and round up all of the children, but Caught-His-Horse-First escapes. They bring the children, including the chief’s niece, to their fort. Eventually, Caught-His-Horse-First finds the fort and begs for his niece. A skirmish breaks out; the soldiers keep the girl, and Caught-His-Horse-First barely escapes with his life.


The orphaned Sioux children are taught by Mrs. Neale, the commander’s wife. Thomas befriends Caught-His-Horse-First’s niece, and names her Winona. John Cole falls ill, and Thomas is discharged along with him. They decide to take Winona along and make her their servant. Over the next few years, they grow to love her like a daughter. The family moves to Grand Rapids, where Thomas resumes his crossdressing gig for his former employer. He starts wearing women’s clothes around the house, embracing his female identity.


The Civil War breaks out, and Thomas and John return to the army. Their new troop contains some of their old friends. They are deployed to the Union front in North Virginia, and both miraculously survive, though they are taken as prisoners and nearly killed until the Union government orchestrates a prisoner swap. After the war, they return to Grand Rapids and Winona.


Thomas passes convincingly enough as a woman that he succeeds in securing his marriage to John Cole. Then, they receive a message from one of their old friends from the army, Lige Magan, to go live on his estate in Paris, Tennessee. They travel there from Michigan, but are beset by Rebel soldiers and almost killed. After settling on Lige’s farm, they meet his girlfriend and brother, Rosalee and Tennyson. Lige uses his army skills as a sharpshooter to fend off Rebel intruders.


One day, a former comrade, Starling Carlton, appears at the farm asking for Winona. He relates that Caught-His-Horse-First kidnapped Mrs. Neale and her daughters, killing everyone except one daughter, whom he intends to use to trade for Winona. John and Thomas refuse to give her up, but Starling abducts her. Thomas pursues Starling to Major Neale’s fort, and sees him in utter despair over the loss of his family. The prisoner exchange proceeds as planned. However, after receiving his daughter, Neale orders his men to kill the remaining Sioux. Thomas kills Starling when he tries to kill Winona, then takes her and flees to his farm.


Thomas chooses to pass permanently as a woman, because it aligns with his gender identity and helps conceal him from the authorities. One of his troop’s leaders, Corporal Coulson, eventually finds his way to Thomas and John’s farm, and sees through Thomas’ disguise. Feeling that he has no other choice, Thomas submits, and goes to prison. While on trial, someone connects him to the murder of Starling Carlson, and he is given a death sentence. Just before the execution date, Major Neale successfully appeals his sentence. Instead, he is forced to work hard labor. At the end of the novel, he returns home to John and Winona.

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