This stunning Civil War novel from best-selling author Dennis McFarland brings us the journey of a nineteen-year-old private, abandoned by his comrades in the Wilderness, who is struggling to regain his voice, his identity, and his place in a world utterly changed by what he has experienced on the battlefield.
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.
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.
His hearing has returned almost fully, though the fierce ringing in his ears remains. A high-pitched sizzling whir, it revives in him a sickening regret and sometimes vibrates his skull. He has noticed a soreness at the crown of his head, and when he touches the spot, he feels what’s left there of a scab; he has no recollection of what caused this particular injury, but thankfully it appears to be healing.
When he is able to sleep, he most often has the old dream-come-true, which he first had about a week before the brigades began to cross the Rapidan: he’d startled awake in his tent one warm night near the end of April, crying out and rousing his bunkmate, Leggett, for in the dream his comrades had abandoned him on the battlefield. Now when the nightmare comes, it comes with the mechanics of memory, and he generally continues to doze till he is awakened by the popping dream-din of musketry, the gut-thunder of artillery, or, by far the worst, the grim fire-yelps of men dying. For a few seconds, the scent of gunpowder lingers in his nostrils, or the sweet coppery stench of charred flesh, and he begins again to tear at his clothes.
He rests in rocky soil beneath a bridge; this much he knows. The stone arch overhead spans a creek of about twenty paces in width. He doesn’t know the name of the creek. From the sunlight that slides through the pines on the opposite bank and agitates on the brown water, he judges the time of day to be around six in the evening. Regarding his whereabouts, he knows only that he is most likely somewhere between Culpeper and Washington City. In his bread bag are some leftover rations—two worm castles, some sugar and pickled cabbage, the stub of a candle, and a strip of dry lucifers; in his knapsack, the book sent to him by his sister, her letters, his Christian Commission Testament, and a varnished, inscribed base ball. He figures he has averaged eight to ten miles a day, slipping footsore along streams, crouching through woods and fields, venturing onto roads only after dark. Though he has done no wrong, he must play the fugitive; though he himself was the one deserted, he is certain to be taken for a deserter and has no paper to prove otherwise. Even if he were to try joining another regiment, he might be arrested, perhaps quickly tried and executed. He has heard that the streets of Washington teem with soldiers of every stripe and condition, and he thinks that there he might escape scrutiny while he arranges, somehow, a return to Brooklyn.
Excerpted from Nostalgia by Dennis McFarland. Copyright © 2013 by Dennis McFarland. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q: What’s the story behind the title of the novel?
A: When I learned that nostalgia was one of the names used in the nineteenth century for the condition we today call post-traumatic stress disorder, I thought it an irresistible title for the book: not only did it have the double meaning (a mental disorder and a past time recalled), but in this context it was also ironic—contemporary usage often connotes a past time fondly recalled. Also, the word’s etymology (ancient Greek for “return home” and “pain”) made a great epigraph for the book.
Q: Why did you decide to write about PTSD, and how did you come to set the story during the Civil War?
A: In the news and among people I met, I kept hearing about the soldiers who were coming back from our wars (in Iraq and Afghanistan) injured in this particular way. I decided to learn more about it and read Ilona Meagher’s book, Moving a Nation to Care. It’s a great overview of the problem and includes a chapter on the history of PTSD. Big surprise, it turns out that soldiers have been mentally and emotionally damaged by combat from the beginning of time. Two facts particularly struck me: whatever we’ve learned about this condition and how to treat soldiers suffering from it seldom got carried forward to the next war—it was as if we forgot about this dire consequence of combat, and with each new war, we had to reinvent the wheel; and I read that during the American Civil War, these “crazy” soldiers would sometimes be cut loose on the battlefield and left to find their own way home, which I found heartbreaking.
I was planning to write a novel on this subject set in contemporary times, and I had in fact written about 60 pages of just such a book. (This material eventually got condensed into a short story, “Stateside,” that was recently published in The American Scholar.) But when I encountered these compelling details in Meagher’s book, I thought if I set the story during the Civil War, I had at least a chance to write something that wouldn’t seem only topical.
Q: Why add Walt Whitman to the novel and make him such a pivotal character? Was he there from the beginning?
A: I read somewhere that anybody with a halfway decent high school education knows that Walt Whitman was a wound dresser in the Washington military hospitals during the Civil War. So I’m embarrassed to admit that I was among those who didn’t know it. My wife, Michelle Blake, who is also a writer and smarter and better educated than I, told me about Whitman when I was first doing the research for this possible book. Whenever I’m trying to conceive a new novel, there is usually a moment at which I feel I’ve gathered enough pieces of the puzzle to begin writing. Whitman was the added richness that pushed me over the line, and he did not disappoint. I think his presence in the story provides a kind of antithesis to the horror of war—and if there was anybody who would understand invisible wounds, Whitman would.
Q: How did you do your research into these Civil War hospitals? And how did you research the diagnoses and treatment of “nostalgia” patients?
A: This kind of research is a lot easier nowadays because of the World Wide Web. There’s quite a bit known and documented about the physical layout of the hospitals, where they were located, etc. For atmosphere, there are of course Whitman’s own notes (collected in Memoranda During the War). And George Worthington Adams’s Doctors in Blue, published in the 1950s, is a pretty thorough study of Civil War medicine. I discovered through the reading I did that despite all that’s known, there’s quite a bit that remains unknown. So I was able to take some fictional license about some things, but I also tried not to commit anachronistic errors, and I certainly didn’t make up any medical procedures.
Q: Was the three-day battle that Summerfield fights in real?
A: Yes, the Battle of the Wilderness, took place in May, 1864. Though the battlefield passages are written entirely from Summerfield Hayes’s point of view, I moved him through these passages using the actual events, developments, and troop movements as my guides.
Q: What have been the greatest influences on your writing and in writing this novel?
A: When I was starting out as a young writer in my mid-twenties, Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners was the greatest influence on what I was determining then to be my ambitions—and within that collection, the essay entitled “The Nature and Aim of Fiction.” I believe she reveals everything an aspiring fiction writer needs to know about where to put one’s focus, what to care about, what to take pains to achieve as best you can. She makes clear, for example, that what a reader perceives must enter through the reader’s perceptive apparatus, the senses. Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style taught me how to compose a good English sentence, and White’s essay “An Approach to Style” convinced me that my style would emerge in accordance with who I was and that I should proceed with “plainness, simplicity, orderliness, and sincerity.” And I had the great good fortune of having Frank Conroy for my first writing teacher, whose influence was deep and broad. Among the abundant treasure of his exhortations was this one: “dramatize, dramatize, dramatize, dramatize.”
With the exception of some of Ambrose Bierce’s stories, I did not read any Civil War fiction while I was writing Nostalgia, specifically because I didn’t want to be influenced by what others had already done.
“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
“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.”—Publishers Weekly
Praise for Dennis McFarland
“McFarland is a Divine Watchmaker of a novelist.”—Newsweek
“A writer of extraordinary sympathy and compassion that are remarkably free from sentimentality.”—Boston Sunday Globe
“McFarland is heir to the great Southern literary tradition, and his observations, however somber in import or lyrical in delivery, are always laced with a splendid appreciation of life’s absurdities.”—The Wall Street Journal
“McFarland has to be counted one of the brightest hopes for the literate American novel. I don’t think there’s a writer alive who wouldn’t like to have written some of his sentences . . . You want to compare him to Chopin or Mendelssohn more than to any particular writer.”—Hartford Courant
1. As the book opens, Summerfield Hayes is nineteen. Does he seem young, 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 known 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 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 PTSD 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?