Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why Can't White Authors Help Having A White Saviour?

Sebastian Barry's Days Without End  has been a critical darling in the UK, winning the prestigious Costa Book Award for Novel and the Costa Book of the Year prizes.  Recently released in Canada, Barry has been on the promotion circuit, recently appearing on CBC's Writers and Company.

With so much praise, I jumped in with little knowledge of the book's subject matter, other than it taking place around the time of the American Civil War and involving the tale of Irish immigrants seeking to make lives in the frontier.

Days Without End is told through the eyes and voice of Thomas McNulty, a young and diminutive young man who finds himself joining the US army as it pushes American dominion into lands long occupied by indigenous populations. Fighting side-by-side with his companion, John Cole, Thomas and Cole develop intimate feelings for one another and spend much of the novel trying to establish some normalcy to their relationship, where their love can be expressed outside the disapproving eyes of others.

While engaging in one of the many skirmishes with a Sioux tribe, Thomas and John's unit kills the mother of a young girl, who they quickly name Winona and adopt as their own. Thomas and John take on fatherly roles, trying to create a stable family life for her. When Winona's family members come looking for her many years later, Thomas and John must decide how to respond and how far to take their protective role, whether to make a choice of personal sacrifice or allow her to return to her people.

My feelings for this book are mixed. On the one hand, Barry is a beautiful writer, who brings a poetic lyricism to his prose, which would contrast sharply with those accustomed to the more edgy and gritty prose of Cormac McCarthy's account of American expansion into the west.

Barry also offers a thoughtful exploration of sexuality and gender among a group of men who have mostly been characterized as hyper-masculine and promiscuous. Barry, inspired by his son's coming out, offers a Thomas and John who are tender and familial, eager to maintain their loving bond in circumstances that appear to conspire against them.

But all that said, despite the writing and thematic ambition, Barry almost ruins the book by turning Thomas into the plot's white-saviour, an overused and historically insulting trope. Thomas is wracked by guilt (because he is part of a genocidal army), Thomas must save the innocent orphan girl (with no thought about whether that is appropriate, hell American's can claim whatever they want for themselves), Thomas is the father figure who follows Winona and sacrifices his own freedom for her safety (after killing off her remaining family).

There is a moment where Barry has Thomas contemplate the moral ambiguity of his actions in taking Winona as his and John's own daughter, but even this sentiment is quickly discarded and Thomas forges on as white-saviour and protector to his daughter.

Honestly, I thought we all learned after Dances With Wolves that this was a super problematic portrayal of whites in their dealings, used to soften the historical image of white genocide.

This very much left a bitter taste in my mouth, which is a shame because the book could have offered so much if it didn't fall into such a disconcerting literary tool.

A very luke warm recommendation from me.

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