In the Fall 2008 issue.
John Alan Muro turns 16 on April 17, 1861, the day that his native Virginia secedes from the Union in “The Disagreement” by Nick Taylor (Simon and Schuster, 360 pages, $24.95).
He dreams of attending medical school in Philadelphia, but his father, who is in the textile business, insists he learn the business from the ground up. They believe “the disagreement” will be over in six months.
When the draft starts, his father decides John will go to medical school at the University of Virginia, rather than be drafted. There he gets a job as a clerk in a hospital and meets a girl he becomes interested in, Lorrie Wigfall. He also befriends a Union soldier, who is a patient. But he receives a letter that he is needed at home and must choose between his family and his career.
“The Disagreement” is a remarkable novel. Taylor uses powerful descriptions of the horrors of the Civil War seen through the eyes of a medical student. The characters are vivid, the dialogue real and the story is compelling and moving.
Nick Taylor has a master’s degree from the University of Virginia. He is an assistant professor at San Jose State University. This is his first novel.
John Alan Muro, 16, of Lynchburg, Va., dreams of attending medical school in Philadelphia. The problem is that it’s April 1861, and Pennsylvania is in another country — one, moreover, that is about to launch an invasion of his state. Sent by his father, who owns a seemingly prosperous clothing mill, to study medicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Muro makes the best of what he thinks is a bad situation. It gets worse. This wonderfully nuanced story of human strengths and foibles is not your typical retelling of Civil War-era medicine, ineffective as it was, but rather a sensitive look at a young man’s accelerated journey to adulthood. Along the way we see how Confederate surgeons dealt with dwindling stocks of even the most basic medicines, and how they used natural compounds to do the best they could for their patients — even if they were on the other side. In his debut, Taylor captures the manners, mores and language of the era, sweeping the reader back in time. – MICHAEL J. BONAFIELD, news copy editor
“Nick Taylor’s first novel is a hum-dinger’…” – MORE
by Hannah Serrano
“In his beautiful and critically acclaimed debut novel The Disagreement, released today, author Nick Taylor tells the story of a young UVA med student forced to make choices on love, loyalty and sacrifice in the midst of the Civil War. Taylor, a UVA alum and “naturalized” Virginian himself, has already drawn comparisons to Crane and Fitzgerald” – READ THE INTERVIEW
“We have here a novel of great literary merit and it appears in a Civil War setting. Take a chance on it. A truly great reader has become a great writer with this his first novel.” – MORE
By Doug Childers
When it comes to combat, the sleepy town of Charlottesville lay in the eye of a hurricane during the Civil War.
While the war began less than a day’s journey to the north in Manassas and ended four years later with extended battles on either side of Thomas Jefferson’s hometown, it avoided Union occupation until March 1865, when Col. George Armstrong Custer rode into town with his cavalry.
Yes, that Custer.
In fact, the University of Virginia stayed open during the entire war, although enrollment dropped precipitously as war broke out.
That’s not to say that Charlottesville played a negligible role in the Civil War, though.
As Nick Taylor demonstrates in his fascinating debut novel, “The Disagreement,” Charlottesville General Hospital and the medical faculty at U.Va. treated thousands of sick and wounded soldiers.
Amid the talk of a quick victory that precedes so many wars, though, no one could have predicted how grim the future would be.
As “The Disagreement” opens, Virginia is debating whether to secede from the Union, and John Alan Muro, a 16-year-old Lynchburg native, still hopes he can attend medical school in Philadelphia.
The outbreak of war disrupts his plans, and after a cousin returns from the first battle of Manassas with only one leg, Muro’s father resolves to send John Alan to study medicine at the University of Virginia. There, he reasons, his son will safely — and honorably — avoid combat.
Muro quickly discovers the hardships war has placed on the university and the hospital.
Medical supplies are running low, and as the medical faculty finds itself overwhelmed by the number of sick and wounded soldiers arriving by train, the university’s medical students receive orders to serve as full doctors.
Suddenly, Muro faces more responsibility than he seems ready for.
“The Disagreement” is not merely a novel about the Civil War, meant primarily for Civil War buffs. It’s an intimate novel of maturation, in which Muro learns not only the practice of medicine but also the broader, tougher lessons of adulthood.
Muro makes mistakes, chafes under his mentor’s corrections and comes to understand his growing importance in a difficult world. And — perhaps inevitably, even in wartime — he falls in love.
“The Disagreement” is powerfully entertaining and moving, and Taylor, a graduate of U.Va.’s MFA program, captures the period nicely without burdening readers with showy displays of his hard-earned research.
Let’s hope his future work is as strong as his debut.
One boy’s life, changed by Civil War
By Lauren Bufferd
April 17, 1861, was the date on which the state of Virginia seceded from the Union. In Nick Taylor’s richly detailed historical novel The Disagreement, it is also the 16th birthday of the young narrator, John Alan Muro. Muro is swept up in the excitement of the moment, only to realize later that the possibility of war could shatter his secret dream of attending medical school in Philadelphia.
After a cousin is critically injured at the battle of Manassas, Muro’s parents choose to send John Alan to medical school at the University of Virginia at Charlottesville, more to get him out of the line of fire than out of interest in his studies. As the war progresses and more and more wounded soldiers arrive, Muro is pressed into service at the Charlottesville General Hospital. Despite his lack of expertise, Muro saves the life of a Northern lieutenant, earning the contempt of his peers but starting a lifelong professional and personal relationship that grows in significance over time. In addition, Muro becomes infatuated with Lorrie Wigfall, the capable niece of one of his professors. As they begin a tentative romance amid the battle-scarred soldiers and frightened civilians, Muro is forced to make some very adult decisions regarding what he truly wants and where he belongs.
Taylor’s major achievement lies in the creation of a believable narrator whose personality and tone read true to both the time period and his youth. Muro is neither academically gifted nor mature for his years, but he is smart enough to understand that for every road taken, there are an equal number left untraveled. Though comparisons to Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel Cold Mountain seem inescapable, The Disagreement holds its own—smaller in scope, but also more personal, closely following one man’s emotional and professional development in the midst of a war that offered him both possibilities and limitations.
Love and Death in Jefferson’s Academic Village
By Larry T. McGehee
One reviewer compares a new Civil War novel by Nick Taylor, The Disagreement (Simon & Schuster, 2008, 360 pp.), to Charles Frazier’s prize-winning epic, Cold Mountain.
Other than sharing the Civil War time period, I don’t find much similarity between the two works at all. Cold Mountain was ponderously long, dark in mood, bloody and brutal in action, and tragic in its climax and conclusion, and it left me with a literary depression which I have yet to overcome.
By contrast, The Disagreement lacks any battle scenes, does not rely upon Greek classics for its inspiration or plot, clips along at a calm pace and can be read in a day’s time, and focuses more upon the coming of age of a solitary young man than upon the unraveling of complex contexts.<!–more–>
John Alan Muro, son of a former doctor turned clothing mill owner in Lynchburg, turns 16 on the 1861 day that Virginia secedes from the Union. With secession, young Muro’s dream of leaving Lynchburg and enrolling in the medical college in Philadelphia evaporates. His father, suddenly affluent again because of military uniform orders, insists that John Alan train himself to take over the management of the mill. Threatened with being drafted into military service, John Alan is spared that fate by his father enrolling him in medial studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the scene of most of the novel’s story.
The arrival of increasing numbers of wounded soldiers at UVa following each major battle—with First Manassas on–brings John Alan under the mentorship of several professors diverted into practicing medicine. A desperate medication treatment on his part saves one dying soldier, a Yankee, and draws the attention of the medical faculty. John Alan becomes a doctor by following their directions and providing hands on medical services, at which he seems rather adept.
But not all of his time is spent dressing wounds, administering quinine, and saving a Yankee. John Alan meets and pursues Lorrie Wigfall, a refugee who seems one moment to be a seductive Scarlet O’Hara tease and the next an altruistic social worker, and most of the novel is an account of the on again-off again relation between the young lovers. The basic story, however, is of John Alan’s coming of age and acquisition of wisdom, through the twin forces of love and war.
The publishers herald this novel as meticulously accurate in its period-detail from the Civil War years, and they hope (a bit too ambitiously, I think) to see it recognized as one of the five best Civil War novels (along with Killer Angels, Gone With the Wind, Red Badge of Courage, and Cold Mountain). And indeed, there are some moments of astute-eye description—as in Taylor’s description of the Rotunda and the quadrangle colonnade buildings and serpentine walls at UVa, or his catalog of medicines of the time, or his description of details in men’s and women’s clothing.
But there are other moments that exceed credulity, as in the idea of a 16-year-old brilliant medical student, or in the gigantic dinner party that a very young Lorrie plans and organizes for 1,200 sick and wounded soldiers and the medical faculty and students at war’s end when Sheridan has already ravaged the Valley and the extravagant foods and wine already would have been unavailable for many months, or in the organizing of a well-costumed medieval joust when there could not have been many horses or young riders around for it.
Still, if you are weary of watching the violence of The Sopranos, here is a novel of domestic tranquility persisting in the midst of savage warfare, and oddly oblivious to it (as are most youngsters away from home for the first time and at college). Any student currently enrolled in medical school as a means of avoiding service in Iraq will be reinforced by embracing this peaceful diversion.
Biographical information about Jack Taylor is scant. His jacket-cover photo makes him seem rather young. He may well be a Virginian: although he lives in the San Francisco Bay area and teaches at San Jose State, he holds an MFA degree from UVa. This is his first published novel. It shows a capacity for evolving into a talented writer.
“At its best, historical fiction reveals the truth or reality of the past. Nick Taylor has achieved this in his very fine book. Taylor has chosen to see the Civil War’s human wreckage through the eyes of a young Confederate surgeon at a hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. The result is a compelling and moving novel.”
-Jeffry D. Wert, Civil War historian