You’d think enough material had been produced about the Civil War, from Louisa May Alcott’s hospital sketches to Ken Burns’s miniseries. But the war must still be largely a mystery to us, a great blow to the American Dream of comradeship and opportunity.
In his terrific new novel about the awful conflict, Dennis McFarland focuses on “nostalgia,” or what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder. By any name, it’s the entirely human instinct to retreat — in one’s own mind, at least — from horror.
Young Summerfield Hayes lives in an earthly paradise. Although he’s remarkably intelligent for his 19 years — well educated and well brought up — he’s too innocent to appreciate the real nature of his circumstances. He lives in Brooklyn in 1864 with his devoted older sister, Sarah . They have been recently orphaned, but their parents left them very comfortable. The days and nights pass by in a relaxed routine of well-cooked meals, easy pleasantries and long afternoons lounging in window seats reading. Sarah works as a schoolmistress, and Summerfield holds a job as a clerk for a local shipwright, although his real passion is pitching for a baseball team . (It is still baseball’s golden age, played mostly for love, not money.)
Everything is fine until the young man realizes that his love for his sister is growing out of bounds. Appalled at his thoughts, he takes what seems to him to be an honorable way out: He enlists in the Union Army.
Almost before he knows it, he’s in training, then in battle, then irrevocably lost in the Virginia wilderness, deserted by his comrades, bleeding from wounds, temporarily deaf. Gradually, he (and the reader) begin to understand that what he sees, hears and feels isn’t necessarily real.
What he remembers, he’d rather not: burying his tent mate in a shallow grave, seeing his best friend torn apart by a necklace of exploding cartridges, hearing his bayonet going into some poor man’s guts. After a hundred or so pages of ghastly war narrative, the boy ends up in a Union hospital.
How were traumatized soldiers treated in the middle of the 19th century? “Real” men took a dim view of “coddling” warriors, and McFarland creates a beautifully creepy villain: a doctor who is convinced that Summerfield is malingering and plots awful traps to catch him. During one of the attempts, a dying soldier next to Summerfield screams out scornfully, “Court-martial me, why don’t you? I’m dead already, you stinking parlor soldier.” But the doctor goes on with his awful schemes, which reminds us that in times of stress, the best of us get better, and the worst of us get much worse.
Another fascinating layer of this novel has to do with Walt Whitman. He spent day after day in Union hospitals, reading to wounded soldiers, bringing them fruit and candy, providing them with fresh clothes and just chatting, giving them his comfort and encouragement. In this creative re-imagining, he becomes an important friend to Summerfield.
The last third of “Nostalgia” is about coming home. McFarland’s use of the Civil War to explore these themes makes sober sense. Many men, I would guess, want to fight for the right as they see it. But another part of them wants to lounge in the library window seat and wait for a well-cooked dinner. War or peace? It may not even be a moral question but a practical one. A civil war within ourselves. McFarland doesn’t give us an answer, but he poses the question masterfully.
See reviews books regularly for The Washington Post.
By Dennis McFarland
Pantheon. 322 pp. $25.95