The History that Still Haunts Us in ‘A Thousand Moons’

About a third of the way into Sebastian Barry’s startling and timely new novel, A Thousand Moons, two men of local influence have a conversation about the state of affairs in western Tennessee. It’s less than a decade after the close of the Civil War, and despite the Union victory, the battle to shape the Volunteer State’s identity is very much ongoing.

According to one colonel, “‘Asking questions about nightriders in Tennessee in these times… used to be a fairly safe occupation. Asking questions now can get you killed quick enough. But we’re in that business. We just have to know how to shoot back, I reckon.’” These “nightriders” are early members of the nascent Ku Klux Klan, former Confederate soldiers unwilling to accept the changes wrought by the war, especially those ushered in by the Emancipation Proclamation. Their leader, Zach Petrie, who harbors “a violent sense of a man who was wronged [and] cradling that to his chest evermore,” is camped out in the woods with a gaggle of mangy followers. Periodically, these men don hoods and sweep into the nearby town of Paris, Tennessee, mounting a nighttime campaign of violence and terror meant to impose their dark vision for a well-ordered society.

As the colonel notes, the Klan is gaining ground; after a brief period immediately following the war, during which a semblance of peace and justice seemed imaginable — if not exactly close at hand — the mood in Henry County is swinging in the nightriders’ favor, and it’s no longer safe to assume you understand your neighbors’ loyalties. “Maybe the time was coming for [the nightriders] to be known,” our narrator worries, “and return as strange heroes and that was what troubled Lige Magan’s sleep, and troubled us all.”

This sense of paranoia and uncertainty lies like a haze of artillery smoke over the Tennessee landscape, hauntingly conjured in A Thousand Moons. We’re never certain we’ve got an accurate read on the men who wield power in this hardscrabble setting. Do they seek justice? Or are they aligned with the forces of hate and aggrievement?

Readers of Barry’s previous novel, Days Without End, will recognize our narrator, Winona, as a teenaged Lakota girl, adopted by John Cole and Thomas McNulty (who narrates Days) after her family was slaughtered in the Indian Wars. John and Thomas, both veterans of those genocidal conflicts, are married; Thomas identifies as a woman. Now, in A Thousand Moons, the family is living on a farm outside Paris and owned by Lige Magan. Also in residence are Lige’s girlfriend, the former slave Rosalee Bougureau, and her brother Tennyson, a freedman.

Early in the novel, two members of this vibrant and unorthodox family, Winona and Tennyson, are viciously attacked in separate incidents. Winona has almost no memory of the night she was assaulted, and she doubts the veracity of what little she can recall: “I was seeing these things and then not seeing them. Passing in and out of sight like in a dream.” Tennyson was beaten within inches of his life, and though he recovers physically, he falls mute, and is unable or unwilling to identify his attacker.

The mystery surrounding why Winona and Tennyson were targeted, and by whom, propels the novel forward. Was Jas Jonski, Winona’s jilted ex-fiancé and a whiteman, involved in her beating and rape? Did the nightriders get to Tennyson? Or are more complicated dynamics of violence and reprisal at work? As Winona maneuvers to answer these questions, tensions in Henry County reach a breaking point, and escalating bloodshed — the tit-for-tat of hate — seems all but preordained.

The Magan clan wants only to live how they choose, unmolested on their quiet, isolated plot of land. But we begin to grasp the sad futility of this dream. When Winona, contemplating Tennessee’s broader troubles, wonders, “What was my injury beside this teeming history?” we know that her question is naively formulated. The particulars of her life are inseparable from this teeming history — her brutalization is a natural consequence of the general milieu of dehumanization that surrounds her.

Barry’s prose is hypnotic and convincing, and through it he brings us a compelling tale about a society on the brink, struggling to contain an ideology it hoped was already dead and buried — which, I contend, should sound very familiar.

Despite a rushed and untidy denouement, A Thousand Moons deserves high praise for its rich characters, deft handling of complex issues, and its sly commentary on our own political moment. We’re left gnawing over intractable questions about the character of Tennessee in the late nineteenth century, and America in the early twenty-first.

Had the war really ended?

Has it ever?

A Thousand Moons
By Sebastian Barry
Published April 21, 2020
Paperback April 20, 2021