Words from Dorothy

Index of Contents

I. Euripedes Inspiration for New Novel
II. Book Review: Days Without End.

I. Euripedes Inspiration for New Novel

EURIPIDES' PLAY MEDEA WAS THE INSPIRATION FOR THIS, MY FIRST NOVEL.

Written over 2,500 years ago, the author set into motion a powerful series of events about a woman, who after sacrificing everything for her husband, was discarded and threatened with exile. For revenge, she murdered their two sons. Euripides has the Greek chorus ask, “How does she have the heart to kill her flesh and blood?”

That question is still with us. Timothy Mariano, MD, Alpert School of Medicine, Brown University estimates that there are 500 filicides a year and that seventy-five percent of those murdered are children under six years. Furthermore, he reveals that those statistics hold true year-after-year. And so, each time we read a newspaper account of one of these horrific crimes, we ask ourselves the same question: how can a mother (or father) murder his or her children.

When I began the novel, I have to admit that I thought the book was going to be much more of a blockbuster than it turned out to be. After all, I reasoned, the magnitude of the question suggests a story of such epochal proportions that it would surely rank among the great American literary accomplishments. But it didn’t quite turn out that way. Instead it is a quiet book about a young woman who, despite her ambition and self-absorption, comes to understand her girlhood friend and the betrayals that changed them both forever.

After working on this book for five years, I actually ended up in the same place as Euripides. Each time I read about a mother who has murdered her children, I ask myself how did she have the heart to kill. Unable to find a reason, I still don’t have the answer. But at least, I’m in good company. After all, Euripides’ work lasted this long. There must be hope for my book.

Although I will not join Euripides in the pantheon of great writers, I find that I did enjoy working through Sarah’s struggle and discover her willingness to see beyond the simple explanations for JoBeth’s tragedy. Perhaps that’s the best we can do.

II. Book Review

Book: Days Without End

Author: Sebastian Barry

Press: Penguin Books (2017

Number of Pages: 259

Price: U.S. $16 Reviewer: Dorothy M. Place

Days Without End

It has always been my opinion that the Irish have a unique gene that governs their relationship with the written word. So it is with Sebastian Barry’s, Days Without End, a literary fiction novel published by Penguin Books (2017). The story, set in the mid-nineteenth century, is told through the eyes of Thomas McNulty, a Sligo-born Irish immigrant driven from his home by the great potato famine. The voice in which this story is told is as tumultuous and raucous as that historical period of American history.

McNulty’s adventures begin with his first encounter with John Cole, a handsome young man of Native American heritage. Cold, hungry, bedraggled, and wary of each other, they come upon the sign “Saloon.” In McNulty’s cryptic observation, the sign said “no more, no less.” Below was an ad “clean boys wanted.” A brief meeting with the saloon owner and the boys are taken to a room where “dresses hung like a gaggle of hanged women,” and emerge as Joanna and Thomasina, dance hall girls for whom the miners “shaved, washed, and put on their finery.”

Barry’s book does not end with McNulty and Cole’s two-year stint as dance hall girls. Reasoning that an enlistment provides a uniform, a semblance of regular meals, and a horse, they are drawn to army life and mingle with card-plying, hard-drinking, fractious, villainous, and endearing characters. Many, like McNulty, are immigrants who have adopted the expanding nation as their home. On horses, sometimes little more than a bag of bones, and surrounded by a host of well-drawn characters, McNulty ad Cole are introduced to buffalo hunts as well as the savagery of war and its consequences.

It is not only the lyrical writing that keeps the reader turning pages. No matter the vicissitudes of their lives, it is the relationship between these two young men, teenagers when first met, that is at once astonishing and charming. McNulty expresses it all when, returning with the young girl they have taken as a daughter, he telegraphs their impending arrival and imagines John Cole’s reception. He muses, “I can see John Cole take the news and stand with trembling heart in anticipation of her coming. Out on the porch gazing for us returning birds.” What started as a precarious friendship, becomes a life-long commitment.

Another of the book’s strongpoints is the author’s insights into this period of American history. His vivid descriptions of the initial hysteria that presses young men to slaughter other men—first Native Americans, then soldiers in the Southern army—examines how these unspeakable acts come to be committed. McNulty’s observes, “Our fears are burned off in the smelter of battle leaving only a murderous courage.”

While the reader may find the battle descriptions violent and perhaps objectionable, it is the sad and even remorseful aftermath that brings the true impact of war into focus. Viewing the destruction, the faces of the fallen, and those left behind to suffer the consequences, McNulty meditates on his and the behavior of his fellow soldiers. “The blood is intact in our bodies but we feel like we are bleeding into the earth.” He confesses that he is nothing more than a killer. The author’s uncanny insights into the real tragedies of war makes the reader wonder, given the results of such horrific confrontations, how humans can repeatedly commit the same atrocities.

Barry gives our heroes’ story a satisfying, if not a totally undisturbed by strife, ending. If we are to get anything from this book, other than the pure pleasure of reading Barry’s words, it would be to read our history from an “outsider’s” point of view and to examine the human condition and its ability to love deeply and its penchant for perpetuating conflict as a means for sovereignty. In this reader’s opinion, this book is an engrossing story with a message that lingers long after the last page is read.