Review of Nostalgia, a novel by Dennis McFarland
Dennis McFarland’s novel, Nostalgia, is an elegant, tortuous journey into the darkest corners of the human soul. The year is 1864. America is torn by its bloody Civil War. Young Summerfield Hayes, of Brooklyn, New York, alone in the world with his older sister, Sarah, since the tragic death of their parents in an accident abroad, enlists in the Union Army. He wants to serve his country, to be sure. He also wants to escape the unnaturally romantic feelings he has for Sarah. She knows nothing of these feelings, and takes his enlistment as a deliberate desertion. Before being deployed into the Wilderness, the dense forests of Virginia, Hayes and some of his colleagues pass the time by playing baseball, something Hayes is particularly good at. Friendships are formed, lives are shared. Once the fighting starts, everything turns upside down in a maelstrom of killing, fire, and smoke. Hayes is separated from his regiment, finds himself lost and wounded by shrapnel though later, in the military hospital where he’s eventually taken, learns that these wounds are purely imaginary. So shocking is the destruction he’s witnessed in a brief time that he is unable to speak, or even hold a pencil to write his name. It is said that Hayes is suffering from nostalgia, a broad category of emotional and psychological affliction. A kind man makes who makes a habit of visiting the hospital to read to the bedridden men takes a special interest in Hayes’ case, showing him much care and attention. Later it’s revealed that this man is the famous poet, Walt Whitman. Another towering figure of the time also makes an appearance, President Abraham Lincoln, as he tours the hospital and thanks the wounded soldiers for the sacrifice and service. Hayes recovers his voice, tells his story, and is questioned by a Union officer who thinks Hayes is either a deserter or a coward. The attending medical doctor defends the extent of Hayes’s obvious emotional trauma and it’s decided that the best thing is to transfer him to an Asylum for the Insane, rather than returning him to the front, which is what Hayes actually wants. Walt (as he’s known in the story) devises a plan to get Hayes out of the hospital and back home to Brooklyn. Once there and reunited with Sarah, Hayes discovers that she’s engaged to be married. He withdraws once more into himself. A complete recovery seems impossible until Walt and a friend visit him at home. Just before he leaves, Walt advises Hayes to resume playing baseball, because that’s clearly what he is meant to do. After hitting a home run, Hayes collapses in tears for the first time since the battle in the Wilderness, signaling that he’s at a turning point, and perhaps ready to start to heal. The message of this beautiful novel is simple and clear – war not only maims, kills, and destroys, but it rends the very fabric of the human psyche.