Some stories can’t be confronted head on. They’re more like mazes with multiple entrance points and exits, and only the most gifted novelists find the ability to navigate their twists and turns. That’s the case with Nostalgia, the latest book from widely praised novelist Dennis McFarland, who authored the best-selling 1990 debut The Music Room and 2007’s Letters From Point Clear.
Somewhat unusual circumstances inspired McFarland’s story of Summerfield Hayes, a soldier in the American Civil War who finds himself abandoned on the battlefield during the Battle of the Wilderness, a savage 1894 confrontation between Ulysses S. Grant and the Confederate States Army in Virginia. McFarland deftly interweaves this storyline with Summerfield’s memories of his complicated relationship with his sister in Brooklyn, following up with Summerfield’s long recovery in a hospital in Washington, D.C. “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,” Kirkus’ reviewer writes.
Down times can be challenging particularly for fiction novelists, as they struggle to find their next subject, their next narrative or the character to help them unlock a story. From his home in rural Vermont, McFarland found himself strongly drawn to the stories of wounded veterans returning from America’s multiple conflicts overseas, often with scars both horrifying and invisible. During his first forays into the subject, McFarland came across the book Moving a Nation to Care by Illona Meagher about the dire consequences that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has on American society.
“There was a chapter on the history of PTSD, in which the author mentioned that sometimes these ‘crazy’ soldiers would just be cut loose on the battlefield to find their way back home,” McFarland explains. “That gave me the idea that perhaps if I wrote about this subject and set it further back in history that I might find a way of saying something classical about it rather than writing a book that seemed topical.” In fact, the title Nostalgia refers not to sentimentality but to the medical term coined by doctors to describe a suicidal-level depression and melancholia stemming from homesickness and combat stress.
With seven books under his belt, McFarland admits that crafting a complex narrative strategy presented less of a challenge than mastering the mechanics of warfare.
“I was approaching the story as someone who knew absolutely nothing about my subject,” McFarland admits. “The parts that were challenging had to do with war. If you’ve read books that chart troop movements and the mechanics of combat engagements, I find them really hard to follow. Every moment on the battlefield was something I had to read over and over again in painstaking detail to get things right.”
Summerfield’s trauma is multiplied by his intense yearning to see his sister, Sarah, the schoolteacher in their native Brooklyn for whom he harbors complex feelings. In this early passage from Nostalgia, McFarland writes,
Here is what he has never written to his sister in any letter nor admitted in any form to anyone: in the months leading up to his enlistment, he’d dreamed of her, and they were the wrong kind of dreams. He didn’t so much fear his own snarled feeling as he feared what he imagined hers might be. His could be the dark secret he aged out of, or erased with experience and time, or carried with him if necessary to the grave. But should she return his feelings in this corrupted way, he could see nothing in their future but grief.
“Because of the timing of the death of their parents and the sort of normal and natural closeness he felt with his sister, the fact that he’s suddenly alone with her and she is the only thing he has in the world—at the very time that he is coming of age—it seems to me that he might get confused about feelings of attraction for her that he knows are not okay,” McFarland explains. “But beneath that confusion, I think they have a close and loving relationship.”
Struck mute by his experience in the Virginia woods, Summerfield eventually makes his way to a military hospital on the outskirts of Washington, where McFarland introduces the most delightful and compassionate character in his tale, plucked from real life and as entertaining and jovial as one might imagine. The volunteer assigned to Summerfield’s bedside is none other but the legendary American poet Walt Whitman, who really did spend his Civil War years working in Army hospitals. Working from the young man’s meager possessions, the famed humanist tries to help Summerfield to recover his humanity.
“These are your clues, as it were,” Whitman says. “But I’m resisting the impulse to regard you as a riddle to be solved. I prefer to think of you as a slowly unfolding revelation. A rose in the garden.”
“Walt Whitman turned out to be, for me, a wonderful fictional character,” McFarland recalls. “There was this largeness to his personality that made me like him more as I began to know him better. Setting aside whatever ambitions he had for his career, he seemed to approach almost every situation with the approach of applying his affection to any given situation.”
Many of McFarland’s novels revolve around family dynamics and the troubles and joys that come with them. Though ostensibly a “war novel,” McFarland’s Nostalgia transcends labels once again, threading a story of love, friendship and compassion through the perils of war.
“My family of origin was troubled and now I have a family of my own with grown children that has been, and continues to be, very different from my childhood,” McFarland says. “Those two contrasts give me a lot of food for thought. It comes very naturally to me without analyzing it in any way. I do think family dynamics make up the stuff of an awful lot of good literature. It is the basic unit in our lives in some ways. Even with this subject, which takes me away from what I’ve done in many ways, I still managed to work in those relationships. I think it branches out in directions that a typical Civil War novel does not.”
Because of the well-known ferocity of both Civil War buffs and Whitman scholars, McFarland harbors a bit of trepidation. But not to fear: Nostalgia has won praise from historians like Geoffrey Ward, who collaborated with Ken Burns, who wrote The Civil War with collaborator Ken Burns.
“I suppose I would just like readers to be kind,” McFarland says. “I feel confident that I did my best.”
Clayton Moore is a freelance writer, journalist, book critic, and prolific interviewer of other writers. His work appears in numerous newspapers, magazines, websites and other media. He is based in Boulder, Colorado.