Nostalgia, by Dennis McFarland

This beautiful 2013 novel about the horrors of the American Civil War should be on the shelves of every reader who is interested in serious literature about that conflict. McFarland offers here the story of Summerfield Hayes, a well-off youth who has just lost his parents and who abandons his only sister, beloved Sarah, to enlist in the Northern army. He says it is his only course if he is to serve the nation he loves. What he does not tell her is that he is also troubled by “the wrong kind of dreams” about her.

And war, of course, brings its own kind of dreams, surrealistic dreams of confusion and exaggeration, and disturbing dreams of terror and pain. And private Hayes will discover this during his first battle, the three-day Wilderness campaign of 1864 in which both armies endure major losses but in which the North begins its final victorious drive into Virginia.

But if reality is distorted by war, the structure of the novel reflects an equivalent distortion. We are introduced to Hayes on the battlefield, bleeding, dirty, and hungry, and with no sense of time or where he is. And feeling abandoned by his colleagues, his mind escapes into his past. He recalls early baseball exploits and then relives his life in the Brooklyn home he now shares with his bossy and sensible sister. After which, he recalls his fellow soldiers before the battle, and then refocuses on his struggle to flee the battlefield.

At this point, the reader is as lost as Hayes is. Where is this novel headed? Especially when we suddenly shift to a field hospital, where Hayes joins many new characters and where he is so traumatized, by an experience that we have not fully witnessed, that he cannot speak. But as his hospital life becomes both tender and vivid, the reader feels the beginnings of solid earth under his feet. Which becomes even more solid when his memories return to the battlefield and he again confronts the confusion of fog and smoke and noise, the moaning wounded, and the still images of death littering the ground. Then he is truly overwhelmed by trauma when a shell burst renders him senseless—just as he kills a horribly wounded colleague who is begging to die—and he discovers he cannot talk.

Indeed, the title, Nostalgia, suggests such trauma, which we now call the PTS syndrome but which back then made its victims candidates for an asylum. The title also, however, has another meaning in this novel. An unspoken meaning. For the word’s Greek roots are a blend of “return home” and “pain.”

It is when we move back and forth between Hayes alone on the surrealistic battlefield and silent in his hospital bed that the power of this novel truly blooms. In sharp contrast are, first, the loneliness and desperation of Hayes in the field, and, second, the humanity of the patients, doctors, and wardens in the hospital, some of them cruel but most sympathetic to his internal suffering. Most sympathetic of all is a mysterious, bearded man called Walt.

The Wilderness Battle cost up to 30,000 lives on the two sides, and one senses the brutality of that three-day battle as Hayes reels lost and alone through smoke-filled fields and beneath burning trees. Separated from his regiment, he fears being called a deserter and shot. But all he encounters is men with bloody limbs, men crying out in pain, and men firing blindly at an unseen enemy. He even hallucinates an entire field of dead men rising up and charging the enemy breastworks that confront them.

But literary work is based on human interaction, and if one follows McFarland reluctantly away from the battlefront, one soon becomes immersed in the hospital scenes. Men lie there, still crying out in pain, demanding morphine for amputated limbs, with some doctors sympathetic but one suspicious of Hayes because he has no visible wounds. This is when Walt comes to Hayes’ aid. “You’ve been badly harmed….But I think you’re hurt is a particular way. You strike me in your silence as someone who [awakened] from a terrible dream, then looked down and saw the scar it had left on you…I mean to be your friend…to set you straight when you’re selling yourself short.” Indeed, Walt will later penetrate Hayes’ silence and get him to speak.

With help from Walt and a sympathetic doctor, Hayes is released from the hospital and allowed to return home in order to recuperate. Nostalgia in part, remember, means return home. At first, I was reluctant to follow him there, for I felt the final meaning of the novel was to be found near or on the battlefield. But no, this is to be a novel about the release from pain. Of which there are different kinds.

Then Hayes and his sister Sarah confront their own feelings (nostalgia also means pain), and why Hayes went off to war. Whereupon, Walt arrives again, and helps Sarah to understand her brother. He talked, she says, “about the curative effects of love. He said love’s like truth, that no matter what form it takes, not matter how haplessly it’s expressed, one must try to see to the heart of it, and forgive any of the ugly bits.” And just as he once talked of people “ having more than one side” when talking about a nation split over state’s rights and slavery, Walt means this double vision to apply to human feelings as well. All of which culminates in a beautiful scene at a ballpark that brought tears to my eyes, as Hayes finds a new fulfillment and the personal peace that war had tried to destroy.

This novel has brought unexpected subject matter to the McFarland canon. He is an author I have long admired, especially for his explorations of family tensions. He does so again here, but it is hidden in much more dramatic subject matter. And one can easily miss that aspect of Hayes and his sister’s relationship. Instead, one is swept up by this 19th century tale of warfare and its repercussions, a tale that is vividly told. In fact, as David Goodwillie wrote in The New York Times, “McFarland’s description 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.” He concludes: “Nostalgia is a perfect Civil War novel for our time, or any time.”

Amen. This novel equates national tension with family tension. And the resolution to both is found in our humanity. In our love. (July, 2019)

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