Cultural appreciation or appropriation? There is so much discussion about when admirable cultural appreciation shades into inappropriate appropriation. Concern about when artistic inspiration and interpretation descends into insulting, simplistic stereotype. Determination to support creative freedom while preventing promulgation of hostility towards any group of people.
In A Thousand Moons the author Sebastian Barry, a white, sixty-five-year-old Irish family man writes in the voice of a Native American seventeen-year-old orphan girl, and from the first sentence Winona-Ojinjintka is present, a person with a complex history and a compelling, convincing voice.
This novel is set after Days without End, but it is not necessary to have read that book to follow what happens in this one. The characters are making a precarious living in a smallholding in Western Tennessee soon after the end of the Civil War. The sort of living John Grisham described in A Painted House, or the way the Waltons lived on Spencer’s Mountain. The sort of living where you just get by if nothing goes wrong, but something always does go wrong eventually: bad weather, crop, animal or human disease, wide-spread harvest gluts or dearths all threaten a small farm’s economic survival. And that’s in a place and time where people can rely on the rule of law. Which was not true in Western Tennessee in the early 1870s.
What goes wrong in A Thousand Moons is violent, and cruel, and all too credible. Winona’s reactions, too, carry conviction. Her self-questioning and confusion, fear and determination are believable – and distressing. Sebastian Barry writes with such compassion, his identification with Winona’s point of view is total, I cannot believe any reader could avoid being carried into her world, her time – and suffering with her.
For me this book is a triumphant vindication of the right of an author to create and inhabit any character, to produce a work that increases a reader’s understanding of human nature. That the writer will have done the necessary research cannot be enough, s/he must walk in their characters’ shoes. Winona’s mother used the phrase a thousand moons to describe impossibly long time and distance. Sebastian Barry has walked a thousand moons in Winona’s shoes. As his readers we are privileged to go along for some of the journey.
I read the book in two nights, and yes, I’m reading it again. For many of the reasons I’ve listed before, but mainly because the characters Sebastian Barry has created deserve that much respect. I want to enjoy again the moments of delight that he describes in Winona’s voice, to rejoice in the loving care her hotch-potch found family have for one another, and to hear again their conversations.