Pantheon Reader’s Guide
The questions for discussion contained in this guide are designed to enhance your reading group’s discussion of Nostalgia. The themes in this novel are varied and complex. If there are time constraints in your discussion, you may want to focus on one particular theme. The author has generously provided a list of books for further reading that can help guide you.
Questions for Discussion
1. As the book opens, Summerfield Hayes is nineteen. Does he seem younger or older than his years? In what ways is he already an adult? Discuss the atmosphere of his childhood home and how it prepares you as a reader for the difficult choice he makes in going to war.
2. Sarah feels that her brother’s enlistment is a fateful desertion. Summerfield feels he must do his duty. What else might drive a young Summerfield to join the army?
3. Describe the relationship between Sarah and Summerfield. How does it change by the end of the book? What tests it and what strengthens it?
4. The theme of desertion remains constant throughout the book. Deserters from the army (if caught) are shot. Hayes is deserted by his company in the Wilderness. Sarah sees Summerfield’s leaving as an act of desertion. Both Summerfield and Sarah feel deserted by their parents. Discuss this subject in its many aspects.
5. The men whom Summerfield meets in the army are not know to him long. Why does he feel so close to them? Do you think that, in time, he will be able to remember them with simple fondness, or will his memory of them be forever intertwined with the harshness of the battle?
6. The Battle of the Wilderness was an actual Civil War battle, and the Plank Road, the Brock Road, and Hamilton’s Thicket are real places. What else does “the Wilderness” represent? Discuss what was most powerful, disturbing, or moving about Hayes’s perceptions in the Wilderness.
7. How much does the historically accurate battle material affect our understanding of Hayes’s experience? What other elements in McFarland’s writing create the realistic atmosphere of battle?
8. During the battle, Hayes sees the deaths of Clahane, Flowers, and Leggett. What makes him keep fighting?
9. The battle as described is a mix of smoke and confusion and death. How closely do you think this might resemble a real battle, then and now? What are the differences?
10. The plot of the story wanders back and forth in time as Summerfield wanders in search of his company, and the flashbacks continue once he is in the hospital. How do these “nostalgic” interludes with his sister and parents help him survive?
11. While in the hospital, why doesn’t Summerfield speak?
12. Is the company of other injured soldiers like Raugh and Casper a comfort to Hayes? Compare them to his nightmares/visions of Leggett and Billy Swift.
13. Hayes’s stay in the hospital seems almost an intermission in his life. Dr. Bliss, Matron, even Captain Gracie and Babb enter and exit, never to be seen again. Discuss the importance of this stage in Summerfield’s life.
14. Does learning the visitor in the hospital is Walt Whitman, the famous poet, change your perception of the character? Does knowing that Whitman was a nurse’s assistant during the Civil War change your perception of him as a poet?
15. What does the “character” of Walt Whitman bring to the story? What does he bring to Summerfield? How does Whitman see the patients differently from others who work in the hospital, and why?
16. Post-traumatic stress disorder has been mentioned in history by writers from Herodotus to Shakespeare, but the first U. S. military hospitals for PTSD weren’t set up until after the Civil War. What about the circumstances of the Civil War created so many cases of “nostalgia”?
17. Summerfield spends much of this story trying to remember his friend Billy Swift. Discuss how the mind struggles against itself in a traumatic situation.
18. Will Hayes ever forgive himself for Billy’s death? Do you think he will find Billy’s brother?
19. There are two train rides featured in the book (pp. 71-72 and 275-276). The first is the train that brings the wounded Summerfield to the hospital; the second takes Summerfield home to Brooklyn. “A raging world, hurtling them through the night. A train. Not dead. Beyond understanding.” Compare the two passages in terms of Hayes’s mental state.
20. When Summerfield finds out that Sarah is engaged, he feels betrayed. How is his feeling of betrayal about her moving on the same or different from her feeling of betrayal about having been left alone?
21. Summerfield comes home to many changes: Sarah’s engagement, the rearrangement of their parents’ house, etc. Is this forced readjustment of his memories helpful in forcing an adjustment to his mental state?
22. What can Walt Whitman say to Sarah that Summerfield cannot? Why can’t Hayes explain, and how is this an extension of his illness in the hospital?
23. Do you think Summerfield will see Anne again?
24. How is the young Summerfield who plays April baseball different from the Summerfield who returns from the war a few months later?
25. What does baseball mean to Hayes? What does the game bring to the book? How does the history of the sport influence the way Americans look at baseball today?
26. How do you think the diagnosis of nostalgia in the post-Civil War era is different from a diagnosis of PSTD today? What are the similarities and differences?
27. To what degree does the book leave you with a “happy ending”? Do you feel that Summerfield will be healed? What will he carry with him from the incidents in the book?
We asked the author to list some of the resources he used in his research. This is far from all of them but can give a good start to anyone who is interested in learning more about the themes in this book.
About the Civil War:
Drew Gilpin Faust, This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War
Frederick Clark Floyd, History of the Fortieth (Mozart) regiment, New York Volunteers
Shelby Foote, The Civil War, A Narrative
Gordon C. Rhea, The Battle of the Wilderness May 5-6, 1864
Francis Amasa Walker, History of the Second Army Corps in the Army of the Potomac
Walt Whitman, Memoranda During the War
About Walt Whitman:
Richard Maurice Bucke, Walt Whitman
Robert Leigh Davis, Whitman and the Romance of Medicine
Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life
Roy Morris, Jr., The Better Angel: Walt Whitman in the Civil War
Robert Roper, Now the Drum of War: Walt Whitman and His Brothers in the Civil War
Eric T. Dean, Jr., Shook Over Hell: Post-Traumatic Stress, Vietnam, and the Civil War
Ilona Meagher, Moving a Nation to Care: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and America’s Returning Troops
Peter Morris, But Didn’t We Have Fun?: An Informal History of Baseball’s Pioneer Era, 1843-1870
Peter J. Nash, Baseball Legends of Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery
About Civil War-Era Medicine:
George Worthington Adams, Doctors in Blue: The Medical History of the Union Army in the Civil War
Louisa May Alcott, Hospital Sketches