Book Review: GOING HOME by James D. Shipman
Lake Union Publishing/Amazon Publishing publication date July 28, 2015
Trade Paperback, ISBN 9781503944190
Immigration was a major socio-economic factor in shaping the United States in the Nineteenth Century. Territorial expansion and the prospects of owning land, as well as finding employment, were enticements to Europeans seeking a better life. James D. Shipman has taken the true story of his great-great-grandfather Joseph Hastings and transformed it into an historical novel which is affecting. While the plot has many sensational events, Shipman’s skill prevents melodrama from seizing center stage. Rather, his attention to well-drawn, detailed characters makes Going Home a very engaging and moving read.
The third-person narrative begins with the protagonist Joseph Forsyth, a Union soldier, fighting in the trenches during the Battle of Petersburg, Virginia on January 2, 1865. Joseph is shot in the chest by Confederate soldiers. He is taken to the Union Hospital Camp. Rebecca Walker, a young nurse who is grieving the death of her only child from illness, and that of her husband in another battle a few months before, is the first to triage Joseph. As she tries to locate where he has been wounded, she finds a letter pinned to the inside of Joseph’s blood-soaked jacket. The letter is from Joseph’s wife, and reminds Rebecca of her patient’s humanity. His mortality evokes that of her late husband. She decides that she will fight for Joseph’s life. She pleads with the Army surgeon, Dr. Thomas Johnston, to check Joseph’s wound, which is in the left collar below the bone. Johnston relents and operates on Joseph. Joseph survives, but now faces the risk of infection. Rebecca’s nursing and determination, as well as a growing closeness with Dr. Johnston, may save Joseph after all.
The narrative then flashes back to 1849. Joseph, a lad of eleven from County Derry, Ireland, boards a ship for America with his father Robert, a drunk with a violent temper, and his beloved, long-suffering mother Lydia. They hope to find and purchase land to farm. Robert has been the undoing of his family. He cannot keep a job, and he gambles when he drinks. During the voyage, Robert continues to drink, and joins a card game. He bets with money he doesn’t have. To pay his debt, he sells Joseph into an apprenticeship with Michael O’Dwyer, a printer who lives in Quebec City, Canada. When the ship reaches New York Harbor, Joseph remains on board while his parents disembark. Joseph finds himself alone in The New World, without any control over his destiny. His powerlessness grows into an iron resolve to become master of his fate.
The novel touches on many social and economic injustices which continue to beleaguer the United States today. The poor find that, no matter how hard they work, their lives are dictated by the wealthy. While others profit from war, the poor are sent to fight in it. Women and immigrants are treated as subordinates, not as equals. Families are dysfunctional due to poor communication, denial of existing problems, and fantasies about the way people actually are.
Shipman‘s writing is in sync with the tale he is telling. He explores his characters’ interior lives, and makes them human, and sympathetic. The dialogue is very realistic as well. Since this is based on Shipman’s actual forebear, he does not take liberties with the story and transform it into an allegory. The only hidden meaning in Going Home is the truth each person conceals from himself or herself until they are forced to confront it, or ready to face it.
I recommend this historical novel, and want to emphasize that the story does not focus on Joseph Forsyth’s possible death from battle in The Civil War. Shipman wrote a compelling story about Joseph Forsyth’s life, a life which reflects the struggles, trials, loves and triumphs of many American families.
Thank you to Lake Union Publishing, an imprint of Amazon Publishing, for the loan of a digital copy of the book through NetGalley.