Nostalgia

( 5 )

Overview

**Washington Post Best 50 Books of the Year**

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.
 
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Nostalgia: A Novel

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Overview

**Washington Post Best 50 Books of the Year**

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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - David Goodwillie
…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.
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. (Oct.)
From the Publisher

**Washington Post Best 50 Books of the Year**

“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

Library Journal
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.
Kirkus Reviews
2013-09-01
A Civil War novel from Vermont-based author McFarland (Letter from Point Clear, 2007, etc.) 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307908346
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/1/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 199,366
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

DENNIS McFARLAND is the author of six previous novels: Letter from Point Clear, Prince Edward, Singing Boy, A Face at the Window, School for the Blind, and The Music Room. His short fiction has appeared in The American Scholar, The New Yorker, Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards, and Best American Short Stories, among other publications. He has received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, as well as the Wallace E. Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, where he has also taught creative writing. He lives in rural Vermont with his wife, the writer and poet Michelle Blake.

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Read an Excerpt

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.

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Reading Group Guide

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?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 5 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 1, 2014

    GOOD READ

    i couldnt put it down

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  • Posted December 11, 2013

    I received Nostalgia in a Goodreads first-reads giveaway. It sta

    I received Nostalgia in a Goodreads first-reads giveaway. It started out slow in the beginning. Once I got into the meat of the story I couldn't put it down. I fell in love with Summerfield Hayes! I love books that have great character development and vivid descriptions. This book painted a picture that completely enveloped me and had me in the moment. I would definitely recommend this book!

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  • Posted October 11, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    Dennis McFarland's new novel Nostalgia, is the product of an out

    Dennis McFarland's new novel Nostalgia, is the product of an outstandingly empathetic mind. This is a writer who truly knows us, especially the unanswered questions that manipulate our lives. As a work of historical fiction, this stands in a very select company. It succeeds as a brilliant re-telling of the typical Union conscript's soul-numbing experiences during one of the most destructive, protracted battles of the Civil War. It stands as a compelling study of the oddly dis-connected times when the lives of citizens in cities only slightly removed from the carnage, could continue as if the war was on the other side of the world. It stands as one of the most effectively brutal re-creations of Civil War Hospital convalescence I have yet read, and it stands as the most touching recreation of Walt Whitman's ministrations to the injured soldiers I may ever read. In addition, the author's use of nineteenth century baseball as a conduit into our modern age is brilliant and absorbing.

    Nostalgia, in the title, so effectively dissected according to it's etymology in the opening pages, actually refers equally to the diagnosis of the time for what is now, finally understood as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The author's meticulous journey into the mind of Private Hayes brings this disorder into clear focus. We are left wondering why our society continues to make the same large-scale mistakes again and again, despite experience telling us there is another way. The surprising yet completely believable fate of a young Brooklyn ballplayer, gone to war, sets a very high standard for fiction yet to be written about the period.

    In the Afterward, the author muses about the ways a character can control the telling of his story. In this case, I believe that Walt Whitman himself must have stood just a step behind McFarland during the writing, whispering into his ear, from time to time, to make sure he got it right. He did.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2013

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    Posted January 23, 2014

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