Nostalgia: A Novel

By Dennis McFarland

(Pantheon, $25.95, 336 pages)

Who is this author?

I first heard of Dennis McFarland in 1990 when he published “The Music Room,” his debut novel, which many of my friends loved and recommended. He has since published many best-selling novels: “Letter From Point Clear,”  “Prince Edward,” “Singing Boy,” “A Face At The Window,” “School For The Blind” and his latest, “Nostalgia.” He also writes short fiction, which has appeared in such distinguished journals and anthologies as The American Scholar, The New Yorker, Prize Stories: The O’Henry Awards, Best American Short Stories. He has taught creative writing at Stanford Univeristy and lives in rural Vermont with his wife, who is the writer and poet Michelle Blake.

What is this book about?

The Washington Post named “Nostalgia” to its list of Best 50 Books of the Year. Set during the Civil War, it is the story of a baseball-loving 19-year-old from New York who decides to enlist in the Union cause, in part to separate himself from his schoolteacher sister, for whom he realizes he has, well, unbrotherly affection. Severely wounded and left behind after the horrific Battle of the Wildnerness, Summefield Hayes, deaf, disoriented and unable to speak or write, somehow makes his way to a military hospital in Washington where he encounters a brusque nurse, a doctor who thinks he is faking his symptoms of “nostalgia,” which we today call post-traumatic stress disorder, and a big, bearded, kindly male nurse that readers of a literary bent know is the quintessential American poet, Walt Whitman. There are echoes of the classic Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage,” but this one stands on its own as a deeply moving account of the horrors and follies of war and the toughness of the human spirit.

Why you’ll like it:

McFarland writes beautifully, even if (or perhaps when) his subject matter is grim. And his decision to have his fictional hero, Summerfield, cross paths with the very real Whitman, adds an interesting dimension to this tale. With lots of recent loose talk about secession coming from political dissidents who should know better, having the chance to read about what the actual Civil War was like, and what it did to those who fought, is a valuable things. Here is a sample of McFarland’s style:

“Beneath the bridge, he has fallen asleep despite his resolve, but not for long, never for long. The noise of his dreaming, as usual, awakens him, and as usual, he begins to tear at his clothes in an effort to expose his injuries. Soon he is naked, his trousers crumpled at his ankles, and he twists round and contorts, trying to explore with his hands the two wounds, one high in the middle of his back, the other along the back of his left thigh—each the bad work of shrapnel. He can achieve no position that allows him to see the wounds, though they recurrently burn like the heat of a hundred needles and sometimes soak his clothes with blood. If he could only see them, he might breathe easier, confirming by sight they’re not mortal. He draws back on his trousers and shirt but leaves off with any buttons or buckles, for his hands have started again to shake, violently, the most irksome of his strange physical alterations. . . .”

What others are saying:

The New York Times Book Review says: “…searing, poetic and often masterly…McFarland’s descriptions of 19th-century life, from the intricacies of musket warfare to the formative years of our national pastime, are stunning in their lyricism and detail…Post-traumatic stress disorder is often associated with recent conflicts of dubious necessity, so it is fascinating to read about Civil War soldiers living through the same nightmare. That McFarland can make such difficult subject matter both entertaining and essential is a tribute to his evident literary talents. Nostalgia is a perfect Civil War novel for our time, or any time.”

Says Publishers Weekly: “In McFarland’s emotionally harrowing Civil War novel, Summerfield Hayes is a 19-year-old Brooklynite, living on Hicks Street and pitching for one of the local “base ball” teams. Over the objections of his older sister, Hayes enlists in the Union Army and ends up taking part in the Battle of the Wilderness. Wounded, he winds up in a hospital in Washington City, where his doctors see that the horrors of battle have rendered him mute and incapable of even signing his own name, and diagnose him as suffering from a medical condition then called nostalgia. Hayes is cared for by, among others, a ward matron and a bearded hospital volunteer named Walt whose identity should be immediately apparent to anyone who knows anything about 19th-century American poets. Employing three alternating narrative strands—Hayes’s idyllic life in his native Brooklyn, his horrifying battlefield experiences, and his nightmarish hospital recuperation—McFarland manages to find something new to say about a war that could have had everything said about it already. In the end, this is a moving account of one soldier’s journey to hell and back, and his struggle to make his own individual peace with the world afterward.”

“McFarland, already a best-selling author, is here being positioned for even bigger things. In winter 1864, 19-year-old Brooklynite Summerfield Hayes joins the fighting but soon finds himself abandoned by his comrades during the Wilderness Campaign. At a military hospital, Walt Whitman becomes his advocate,” says Library Journal.

Kirkus Reviews says: “A Civil War novel from Vermont-based author McFarland . . . that, like The Red Badge of Courage, focuses on the horror of battle as well as on the psychology of the soldier. Summerfield Hayes signs up to fight for the Union for several reasons, some of them better than others. He’s from Brooklyn and was recently made an orphan when his parents died in an accident while visiting Ireland. Strangely, but perhaps most importantly, he feels the need to get away from his older sister, Sarah, for whom he has quasi-incestuous feelings. In 1864, he finds himself fighting in the Battle of the Wilderness in Virginia. Wounded by shrapnel and bleeding badly, he’s abandoned by his regiment but eventually wends his way to an Army hospital in Washington, D.C. Temporarily unable to escape, he listens closely to the conversations of his wounded comrades and is also subject to the tender ministrations of a nurse–Walt Whitman. It’s a matter of concern and outrage when an officious captain comes into the hospital and berates Hayes for being a deserter. Before the war, Hayes had been an outstanding baseball player, and early in his Army career–before the horrors of the Wilderness–he was instrumental in helping to set up a friendly rivalry between two competing teams. (It’s amusing that since there has to be some kind of rationale behind the teams, it’s decided to have single men on one team and married men on the other.) The captain investigating Hayes believes he’s now malingering simply so he can go back to New York and play baseball once again. Using a complex, effective narrative strategy, McFarland moves us confidently from battlefield to hospital to baseball diamond as well as through dream, reverie and memory. A distinguished addition to fictionalized narratives focused on the Civil War and its aftermath.”

When is it available?

You can find “Nostalgia” at the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Mark Twain branch.

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