**Winner of the Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction**
**Washington Post Best 50 Books of the Year**
Set during the Civil War, this stunning novel from bestselling author Dennis McFarland follows a nineteen-year-old private who is struggling to regain his identity in an overturned American landscape.
In the winter of 1864, Summerfield Hayes, a pitcher for the famous Eckford Club, enlists in the Union army, leaving his beloved sister alone in their Brooklyn home. After a particularly grim experience on the battlefield—deserted by his comrades and suffering from deafness and disorientation—he attempts to make his way home but instead lands in a Washington military hospital, mute and unable even to write his name. Among the people he encounters in this twilit realm—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.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.80(d)|
About 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, The O. Henry Prize Stories, 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. Nostalgia was awarded the Michael Shaara Prize for Excellence in Civil War Fiction. McFarland lives in rural Vermont with his wife, the writer and poet Michelle Blake.
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.
Reading Group 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.
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It was about pgs. long total. A lot of that era prose style writing made it charming regardless of the horrific time of war, wounds, loss of young limb and life as they had no antibiotics then. I was surprised I did like it as there was no dialouge at all till 30th page. The ending is what stopped the book from being better. Not sure how it could have ended but it kind of dropped off badly there. All in all an ok read.
i couldnt put it down
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!
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.