A WASHINGTON POST BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR
WINNER OF THE MICHAEL SHAARA PRIZE FOR EXCELLENCE IN CIVIL WAR FICTION 2014
In the winter of 1864, Summerfield Hayes, a pitcher for the famous Eckford Club, enlists in the Union army, leaving his sister, a schoolteacher, devastated and alone in their Brooklyn home. The siblings, who have lost both their parents, are unusually attached, and Hayes fears his untoward secret feelings for his sister. This rich backstory is intercut with scenes of his soul-altering hours on the march and at the front—the slaughter of barely grown young men who only days before whooped it up with him in a regimental ball game; his temporary deafness and disorientation after a shell blast; his fevered attempt to find safe haven after he has been deserted by his own comrades—and, later, in a Washington military hospital, where he finds himself mute and unable even to write his name. In this twilit realm, among the people he encounters—including a compassionate drug-addicted amputee, the ward matron who only appears to be his enemy, and the captain who is convinced that Hayes is faking his illness—is a gray-bearded eccentric who visits the ward daily and becomes Hayes’s strongest advocate: Walt Whitman. This timeless story, whose outcome hinges on friendships forged in crisis, reminds us that the injuries of war are manifold, and the healing goodness in the human soul runs deep and strong.
Praise for Nostalgia
“…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.” —David Goodwillie, New York Times Sunday Book Review
“…emotionally harrowing…McFarland manages to find something new to say about a war that could have had everything said about it already… 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.” —Publisher’s Weekly
“…dreamlike, often harrowing… McFarland, a master of words himself, tells a story in which the clamor of war competes with ‘the brilliant impenetrable silence, the speechlessness, the loss of meaning.’” —The Washingtonian
“…[a] terrific new novel… fascinating… War or peace? It may not even be a moral question but a practical one. A civil war within ourselves. McFarland doesn’t give us an answer, but he poses the question masterfully.” —Carolyn See, Washington Post Book World
“…powerful …not a single passage in Nostalgia feels gimmicky, generic or opportunistic. On the contrary, McFarland … has immersed himself so thoroughly in the language, physical details and ideas of Hayes’ world that this fiction sneaks up and envelops the reader…. McFarland’s masterful prose pulls us through the chaos… [he] summons all the powers of his artistry and imagination — with stunning results… By the novel’s end, the young soldier has taken his place among the great characters of historical fiction…” —Margot Harrison, Seven Days
“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. —Kirkus Reviews
“Walt Whitman, who haunts the pages of this sensitive, ingenious, beautifully written novel, famously said that the real Civil War would ‘never get into the books.’ Nostalgia deftly explores an aspect of war little understood in Whitman’s time or in our own—the invisible wounds combat inflicts upon many of those who somehow manage to survive it.” —Geoffrey C. Ward, coauthor of The Civil War and author of A Disposition to Be Rich
“One of the better novels written on the Civil War, this book could become a classic.” —Historical Novel Society
BATTLE-SHOCKED: ‘Nostalgia,’ by Dennis McFarland
It’s no surprise Dennis McFarland chose the Battle of the Wilderness as the contextual scaffolding for his searing, poetic and often masterly new Civil War novel, “Nostalgia.” The intense three-day campaign, fought in Northern Virginia in May 1864, was the first showdown between the armies of Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee, and the casualties on both sides were staggering. It marked the beginning of Grant’s Overland Campaign, a strategy that eventually led to the sieges of Petersburg and Richmond and the defeat of the Confederacy. Yet details of the battle remain as shrouded as the thick forests in which it occurred. There were few brilliant maneuvers, few heroes remembered by history, and no clear winner. What a perfect setting, then, for a novel exploring the chaos of war and the confounding disorientation of its aftermath.
When we first encounter Summerfield Hayes, a 19-year-old private in Grant’s Army of the Potomac, he is wandering, wounded and alone, through the woods, having been abandoned by his regiment in the high heat of combat. His injuries worsening (a mortar attack has rendered him mute), his supplies running low, he stays hidden for fear of being caught and accused of desertion. He is attempting to make it to Washington, D.C., and from there home to Brooklyn. The novel moves gracefully back and forth through time, and soon we are transported to New York in the months before Hayes’s enlistment, when he is still the popular star pitcher for the Eckford Baseball Club. (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.) Hayes’s parents have recently died in an accident, and he lives with his beloved sister, Sarah, who is pleading with him not to go to war. But she doesn’t understand the true — and less than noble — reason behind his decision.
As the narrative moves to Hayes’s time at the front, McFarland’s prose all but lifts off the page:
“As he gathered his gear, there came a lull in the fighting, and the deafening barrage slowly abated to the sporadic popping he associated with picket skirmishes. He thought it dusk now, but a dusk like none other, a failure of light that lacked the promise of darkness. He could hear the enormous thunder of combat farther away and then the deep rumble of more combat farther away still. What had seemed to him so convincingly the heart of the war was but a single lesion on the leprous body of a giant.”
Hayes finally does make it to Washington, and “Nostalgia” coalesces around his convalescence in the overcrowded military hospital where, still unable to speak, he has indeed come under suspicion of desertion. The narrative slows once the action moves indoors, but picks up again when a mysterious bearded man tending to the limbless, lost and dying is revealed to be Walt Whitman. The great poet (who really did serve as a volunteer nurse) takes a liking to Hayes and devotes himself to the young soldier’s predicament.
McFarland’s previous novels, including “The Music Room” and “Letter From Point Clear,” often focus on the complexities of family, and so does “Nostalgia”; war is not the only dark theme running through these pages. Shifting from the adrenaline-fueled battlefront to the Victorian-like domesticity of the home front can make for jarring reading, but that’s the point; imagine how jarring it was in real life. Over time, the word “nostalgia” has adopted a tranquil bent, but its Greek roots, as the novel’s epigraph tells us, are “nostos” (return home) and “algos” (pain). 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. —David Goodwillie, The New York Times Book Review, November 15, 2013
INSIDE A POWERFUL CIVIL WAR TALE
The title of Dennis McFarland’s dreamlike, often harrowing Civil War novel, Nostalgia, refers not to a benign longing but to a serious—and, among soldiers in that conflict, much diagnosed—condition akin to posttraumatic stress. Summerfield Hayes, a Union private incapacitated by a blast and suffering from “nostalgia,” has been abandoned in the chaos of battle while advancing through Virginia. His goal is to get to Washington, “not be killed as a deserter on the way,” and from there return home to Brooklyn. He does make it to “Washington City” via a hospital where, struck mute, he’s surrounded by degrees of pain and pathos, including an amputee who cradles his stump as if it’s a baby, that test his compassion.
Into this way station steps a visitor, poet Walt Whitman, and it’s through Hayes’s relationship with the gently transgressive writer that McFarland plumbs the novel’s deeper mysteries. “Maybe it’s not so bad, losing the so-called art of speech,” Whitman muses. “Most of life gives language the slip anyway, I find. Look at me: I rattle all day long and into the night and say only a fraction of what I feel . . . .”
McFarland, a master of words himself (“. . . over the surface of the pool, the moon has knit a quivering net of silver-white ropes”), tells a story in which the clamor of war competes with “the brilliant impenetrable silence, the speechlessness, the loss of meaning.” Within that tension it is Hayes’s—indeed, anyone’s—task to find an imperfect peace. —William O’Sullivan, The Washingtonian, October, 2013
‘NOSTALGIA,’ by Dennis McFarland
You’d think enough material had been produced about the Civil War, from Louisa May Alcott’s hospital sketches to Ken Burns’s miniseries. But the war must still be largely a mystery to us, a great blow to the American Dream of comradeship and opportunity.
In his terrific new novel about the awful conflict, Dennis McFarland focuses on “nostalgia,” or what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. By any name, it’s the entirely human instinct to retreat — in one’s own mind, at least — from horror.
Young Summerfield Hayes lives in an earthly paradise. Although he’s remarkably intelligent for his 19 years — well educated and well brought up — he’s too innocent to appreciate the real nature of his circumstances. He lives in Brooklyn in 1864 with his devoted older sister, Sarah. They have been recently orphaned, but their parents left them very comfortable. The days and nights pass by in a relaxed routine of well-cooked meals, easy pleasantries and long afternoons lounging in window seats reading. Sarah works as a schoolmistress, and Summerfield holds a job as a clerk for a local shipwright, although his real passion is pitching for a baseball team. (It is still baseball’s golden age, played mostly for love, not money.)
Everything is fine until the young man realizes that his love for his sister is growing out of bounds. Appalled at his thoughts, he takes what seems to him to be an honorable way out: He enlists in the Union Army.
Almost before he knows it, he’s in training, then in battle, then irrevocably lost in the Virginia wilderness, deserted by his comrades, bleeding from wounds, temporarily deaf. Gradually, he (and the reader) begin to understand that what he sees, hears and feels isn’t necessarily real.
What he remembers, he’d rather not: burying his tent mate in a shallow grave, seeing his best friend torn apart by a necklace of exploding cartridges, hearing his bayonet going into some poor man’s guts. After a hundred or so pages of ghastly war narrative, the boy ends up in a Union hospital.
How were traumatized soldiers treated in the middle of the 19th century? “Real” men took a dim view of “coddling” warriors, and McFarland creates a beautifully creepy villain: a doctor who is convinced that Summerfield is malingering and plots awful traps to catch him. During one of the attempts, a dying soldier next to Summerfield screams out scornfully, “Court-martial me, why don’t you? I’m dead already, you stinking parlor soldier.” But the doctor goes on with his awful schemes, which reminds us that in times of stress, the best of us get better, and the worst of us get much worse.
Another fascinating layer of this novel has to do with Walt Whitman. He spent day after day in Union hospitals, reading to wounded soldiers, bringing them fruit and candy, providing them with fresh clothes and just chatting, giving them his comfort and encouragement. In this creative re-imagining, he becomes an important friend to Summerfield.
The last third of “Nostalgia” is about coming home. McFarland’s use of the Civil War to explore these themes makes sober sense. Many men, I would guess, want to fight for the right as they see it. But another part of them wants to lounge in the library window seat and wait for a well-cooked dinner. War or peace? It may not even be a moral question but a practical one. A civil war within ourselves. McFarland doesn’t give us an answer, but he poses the question masterfully. —Carolyn See, Washington Post Book World, November 1, 2013
Is post-traumatic stress disorder a timeless side effect of war or a 21st-century buzzword? Readers may find themselves asking that question as they delve into Nostalgia, the powerful new novel from Brattleboro-area author Dennis McFarland.
Malcolm Gladwell came down on the latter side of the debate in a 2004 New Yorker piece called “Getting Over It,” where he contrasted a post-World War II novel in which a veteran simply “gets over” his trauma with a post-Vietnam novel in which a veteran is haunted by his past. “Somehow in the intervening decades our understanding of what it means to experience a traumatic event has changed,” Gladwell concluded.
Well, maybe. But, as personal accounts of invisible war wounds flood in, it seems more than a little callous to instruct veterans to “get over it” and move on. (A July 2013 New Yorker story by David J. Morris revisited the PTSD controversy with more evidence and nuance than did Gladwell’s piece.) Moreover, other scholars argue that PTSD has existed from the beginning of time under different names, sometimes unexpected ones. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for instance, soldiers who experienced a mysterious malaise were often described as suffering from “nostalgia.”
That historical footnote is the seed of Nostalgia. McFarland tells the story of Summerfield Hayes, a 19-year-old Civil War private and star baseball pitcher who arrives at an army hospital with a striking condition. While everyone in the novel who witnesses Hayes’ symptoms explains them a bit differently, modern readers will immediately identify them as PTSD.
“Baseball-loving Civil War soldier with PTSD” would serve as a perfect pitch for an Oscar-bait movie. Yet not a single passage in Nostalgia feels gimmicky, generic or opportunistic. On the contrary, McFarland — author of six previous acclaimed novels — has immersed himself so thoroughly in the language, physical details and ideas of Hayes’ world that this fiction sneaks up and envelops the reader. By the end, it’s hard not to see Hayes as a living rebuke to Gladwell’s thesis, even though he never existed.
The novel opens in a highly unsettling state of medias res. Bleeding from shrapnel wounds, “adrift in body and mind,” young Hayes has been abandoned in the Virginia woods by his regiment. We won’t discover where or how he was wounded, or why he was abandoned, for many pages, because Hayes’ troubled mind prefers to focus on memories that predate his first and only combat experience. In particular, he dwells on “the sole scrap of peace within him”: recollections of a regimental baseball game.
For its first 70 pages, Nostalgia alternates between present-tense descriptions of Hayes’ wanderings in the forest — jarringly interspersed with fragmentary memories, hallucinations and dreams — and extended flashbacks to his life when it made sense to him.
We learn that he was recently orphaned, that he pitched for a Brooklyn ball club, and that he enlisted in the Union Army in part because he’d begun having “the wrong kind of dreams” about his older sister and beloved companion, Sarah. Bossy and sensible, Sarah is a grounding presence in the flashbacks, while Hayes’ own mind remains a confusing place to be.
Some readers may find this extended opening daunting, rife as it is with disordered information. But McFarland’s masterful prose pulls us through the chaos and into the novel’s second chapter, in which Hayes wakes in a Washington, D.C., hospital to find himself being tended by, of all people, Walt Whitman.
In this year of the Civil War’s sesquicentennial, we’ve been hearing a lot about the great American poet’s work nursing wounded soldiers. Who better than a lightly fictionalized Whitman to watch and wait — patient and empathetic, with his “maternal maleness” — as Hayes finally begins to confront the specter of what happened to him on the battlefield?
Physically sound but unable to speak or write his name, Hayes appears to many observers like a mere “malingerer” trying to delay his return to the front. A doctor diagnoses him with “nostalgia,” which usually earns the afflicted a trip to the asylum. Only Walt (as Hayes knows the poet) argues that the young soldier be allowed to heal in his own time and way.
From this point on, Nostalgia’s reader is on sure footing. While Hayes continues to struggle with paranoia and a sense of unreality, the hospital narrative and Whitman’s guiding presence form a strong central thread. And when at last we learn what happened to Hayes during three days in 1864’s Battle of the Wilderness, McFarland summons all the powers of his artistry and imagination — with stunning results.
In the book’s acknowledgments, the author notes that those three days are believed to have seen nearly 30,000 casualties. How can one imagine such an inferno, or how it feels to survive it? Suffice it to say that this bravura sequence holds both beauty and horrors. It erases the distance between Hayes and the reader, plunging us into a surreal world where nothing is linear, nor solid.
To survive the chaos of engagement, we read, Hayes adopts “the pared mechanism of the warrior.” Or, as McFarland describes his transformation in another memorable passage:
Something deep within him had gone numb, and then, for a moment or two, he lost touch with all the certainties, small and large, that made him known to himself. It was a kind of blankness, for sure, the result of obliterative noise, but not entirely without character: nothing in the world mattered, nothing in life possessed any value, and all human endeavor was as foul and menacing as the scavenging of wild pigs in the street.
In a world where soldiers can be cheerfully grousing companions one instant and unrecognizable corpses the next, it’s no wonder that Hayes loses his grasp of language, logic and the stories we tell ourselves about why things matter. “Getting over it” isn’t an option for him. Gradual healing, it turns out, may be.
The passage above is indicative of McFarland’s prose in general: It has the formality and measured cadence we associate with the 19th century but lacks the baroque, pseudo-Shakespearean flourishes with which many modern writers evoke the period. The narration calls no undue attention to itself and the dialogue is terse and natural — with exceptions made for Whitman’s plainspoken eloquence. It’s the poet who comes closest to giving the novel a “message,” as he laments the costs of war or tells Hayes, “Your wounds are not visible like other wounds … Which isn’t quite the same thing as not real.”
Nostalgia is no sweeping war epic. Hayes’ story is a deeply personal, even idiosyncratic one, and is stronger for that tight focus. The novel may be an effort to understand the “invisible wounds” of current conflicts by transporting their symptoms to a war long past. But McFarland has studiously refrained from imposing a modern, therapy-speak sensibility on 1864. Hayes’ unhinged perceptions and Whitman’s steadfast belief in his inner resilience appeal to our empathy regardless of our stance on the current conventional wisdom about trauma. By the novel’s end, the young soldier has taken his place among the great characters of historical fiction: those who compel us to believe in their resonance, if not their reality. —Margot Harrison, Seven Days, December 26, 2013