Joseph Forsyth is 11 years old when he sails with his parents from famine-stricken Ireland to New York, to make a new life in America. It is 1849, and Irish by the millions are making their way to the United States. Joseph, however, will experience a detour. His father, prone to heavy drinking, loses too much money in an on-board card game. To settle the debt, he essentially sells his son as an indentured servant to a printer in Quebec. When Joseph’s parents leave the ship in New York, Joseph remains, and sails with his new master to Canada.
Rebecca Walter is a nurse serving the Union army in a hospital near Petersburg, Virginia. It is early 1865, and the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee are still holding on to both Petersburg and Richmond. She works closely with Dr. Thomas Johnston, who has seen more wounded soldiers die from disease and infections from surgery, amputations, and wounds than who are dying in battle. One soldier seems so badly wounded that the doctor makes the decision to let him die so attention can be paid to wounded soldiers with better chances for survival.
Nurse Walter, having lost both her young child and her husband, sees that the soldier isn’t as badly wounded as he seems. She begs and eventually hounds the doctor to perform surgery, which he dies, mostly in exasperation. The soldier survives the surgery, but infection sets in, and the situation looks hopeless. The soldier is Joseph Forsyth, now 27 years old.
How Joseph got from indentured services to a printer in Quebec to an army field hospital 16 years later is the story of the historical novel Going Home by James Shipman. It involves a father who keeps drinking himself into trouble, a son who tries to hold his family together evenw hen his own interests are being sacrified, unscrupulous business owners and farmers, and a doctor and a nurse who try to save man’s life.
It’s a rousing good story.
Shipman is the author of the novels Constantinpolis (2015), It is Well (2016), A Bitter Rain (2017), and the forthcoming Task Force Baum (2019). The central story of Going Home, involving Joseph and his wife Lucy, is based on Shipman’s own ancestors.
Going Home is a well-researched, well-constructed historical novel. Details around the Union Army draft, the battle and engagements around Petersburg, and the conditions of Civil War surgeries and medicine add considerably to the narrative, making the reader feel like he’s there.