Image from: https://www.freeimages.com/photo/railway-1-1424126
An idea has been kicking around my head ever since I wrote the short story, "The Dundee Cake." In that tale, I revealed how Maggie and Emily became friends in 1852. So, I thought, why not do another backstory, this time about how Eli came to know Maggie?
So, here we go. Below are the first few pages and it is still a rough draft, but I like the feel of it and that the story is emerging through Eli's eyes. Hope you enjoy it.
Eli never knelt before Maggie to propose.In fact, his proposal was every bit as unconventional as he is. But I needed an image, so this did the trick! Image from http://clipart-library.com/
This sounds like one of those “no duh” things, but when I created Maggie, the good-hearted, Methodist boarding house owner in the first novel of my Saint Maggie Series, I realized that her partner needed to be different. Among other things, his function would be to offer a different outlook on and approach to life. After all, if characters agreed on everything it would make for a pretty boring story.
So… if my lead character was going to be a nineteenth-century evangelical who strove to be true to her understanding of Jesus Christ, then perhaps she needed someone to balance that out. Enter Elijah Amos Smith.
Of course, I knew right off that it would not work to match Maggie with an atheist. An agnostic, a man who questions our assumptions about God but doesn’t deny God outright, would be more workable. In the 1800s, people who refused to accept the absolute authority of religion, choosing instead to make decisions based on reason and logic, were called freethinkers. That knowledge began to take shape in my mind as a man involved in the newspaper business. He needed to be a bit of a crusader, seeking the truth that lay behind events, rather than accepting information at face value or interpreting it through the lens of religion.
On the other hand, I also knew that Maggie would be familiar with Saint Paul’s advice to early Christians. She would have read the verse in the King James Version of the Bible: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14). Put in the more contemporary language of the Good News Translation, the verse reads: “Do not try to work together as equals with unbelievers, for it cannot be done. How can right and wrong be partners? How can light and darkness live together?” While these words appear to be applicable to all relationships, it more frequently was (and still is) used to caution individuals contemplating marriage with someone outside their form of Christianity or outside Christianity altogether.
Therefore if Maggie entered into a romantic relationship with an agnostic, she would realize that she was waltzing into an “unequally yoked situation.” So, she needed to see past mere externals and into the heart of the matter. In fact, she needed to see into the heart of the man.
To that end, I asked myself what would enable Maggie to see Eli’s inner man? For one, his actions. Eli emerges therefore as a truth-seeker, whether it is relates to a news story or a life situation. He refuses to take things at face value. In addition, he is committed to making the world a better place and undertakes activities that Maggie interprets as bringing light to a dark world. For instance, Emily and Nate Johnson have invited both Maggie and Eli into their work with the Underground Railroad. Their invitation and Eli’s activity with the UGRR confirms to Maggie that he prefers justice and mercy for enslaved people over his personal safety.
Finally, Eli has been raised as a Quaker. The Society of Friends developed as a form of Christianity that sought guidance directly from the movement of the Spirit, rather than using the Bible as their ultimate form of guidance. Their worship also was/is different. There was/is no ordained clergy. Worship was/is conducted in silent meditation, broken only when someone is spiritually moved to speak. Contrast that to nineteenth-century Methodism, which sought its guidance from the Bible and a Methodist document called the Book of Discipline. Methodist corporate worship was led by ordained, paid clergy and made use of prayers, pastoral sermons, Bible readings, hymns, and testimony to enlighten and inspire believers.
And yet, Eli is flexible enough to attend Maggie’s church. Granted, he locates himself at the back near the entrance in solidarity with other “unconverted” males. He stands as a skeptic, but – and this is important – he is standing inside the church. And I think Eli’s presence communicates to Maggie that he is a man wrestling with faith.
All of the above was my original conception of Eli. However, I have discovered that a first book is just the beginning of a character’s development. Doing a series has helped me delve more deeply into the characters inhabiting Maggie’s world: Frankie, Lydia, Grandpa O’Reilly, Carson, her brother Samuel, and more. Perhaps it’s because I have served in ministry for around 27 years, but I find people and their motivations to be fascinating. No matter how humble or ordinary, they all have stories to tell, replete with successes, failures, challenges, as well as heartfelt, honest responses and “excellent excuses.”
I also believe fictional characters reveal themselves to an author in the process of writing. Or at least they do to me. Sometimes no matter how carefully I have designed my characters, they may do or “tell” me things that change their developmental trajectory. Eli is no exception. Over the course of the series, he gradually has revealed his history, his heartbreaks, and his questions.
Well, that’s enough for now. More to come next week on Eli and his continued development.
Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith, the main character of the Saint Maggie series, is a faithful Methodist woman who lives in 1860s America. The environment in which she lives is a small town in New Jersey. At that time in U.S. history, Protestant variants of Christianity dominated, and so most people were familiar with biblical references and verses. I try to work within that environment to the best of my ability.
That said, some people today find that the novels contain “too much religion.” All those Bible verses and Maggie’s spiritual rumination feel like overkill or proselytizing to some 21st century folks.
On the other hand, there have been those who have complained that the novel presents a warped view of Christianity. I’m exactly not sure why. Maybe it’s because the pastor in the first novel breaks the Fifth Commandment (thou shalt not kill): Maybe it’s because some of the church folks are not exactly loving to those who do not conform to their beliefs. Or maybe it’s because Maggie forgives the pastor, which feels weird to me because forgiving is part of what Jesus did. Forgiving on our part does not wipe out the other person’s crime but releases the one doing the forgiving from their anger and resentment. In other books, I’ve had some Christians complain that Maggie’s husband Eli swears too much and that the sex is too graphic. (In every encounter between Eli and Maggie, I wrestle with Maggie, who wants a set of imaginary curtains discreetly drawn over their love making, and Eli who keeps throwing the curtains open. Obviously, Eli has won in a few instances!)
Just so everyone is clear. I do not write Christian fiction. That is because to me the genre seems to exist mainly to reinforce the views of some branches of Christianity. Instead, I say that I have opted to write about a Christian woman trying to navigate the world through her faith. As for Eli, a former Quaker and free thinker, as well for a host of other characters with differing beliefs, I try to honor their belief or unbelief, as well.
But Maggie is undoubtedly a Methodist Christian. So, what about her faith drives her? Simply put, it’s active love. The precipitating incident occurs in Saint Maggie. It puts her firmly on a path that winds throughout the rest of the series and is why Eli teasingly calls her “Saint Maggie.” An epiphany happens at a camp meeting after she has been dressed down by her brother over everything from her daughter Frankie speaking up during a worship service to her budding relationship with that scandalous free thinker, Elijah Smith. Despondent, Maggie runs off to a field to weep. That’s when something interrupts her grief, as seen in the excerpt below:
And now she could hear people singing. The wind must have been coming from the direction of the camp, carrying the sound of worship with it. The melody and voices were faint, but she recognized the hymn nonetheless – “And Can It Be That I Should Gain” by Charles Wesley. Suddenly the words were clear and bright as angels’ wings.
Long my imprison’d spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light:
My chains fell off, my heart was free,--
I rose, went forth, and follow’d thee.
She heard only that one verse, which was odd. Odder still was that the words and the beautiful voices disappeared as quickly as they had come. Had the wind changed so abruptly?
And then Maggie understood. The verse had been a gift. She had been told that she was free – had been so ever since she had accepted Christ as her savior. She was, in essence, being asked, whom will you follow?
Two Bible verses rose up in her mind. One was from Galatians: “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” The other verse was from I Corinthians: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
Her bruised heart lifted and began to soar. She always had been free in the Lord. The difficulty came when she allowed other people to place their yokes on her neck. God’s only rule was love and so long as she acted out of charity – out of love – she was doing what Christ wanted. Granted, sometimes what Christ desired was far different from what social custom demanded, but she did not need to take on the burden of other people’s criticism. She could stand up as a free woman with Christ’s yoke – light and easy – on her neck.
Jesus did things that upset others. He healed the sick on the Sabbath, he touched lepers, he had dinner with social rejects, he spoke with and taught women, he cast out demons, he criticized important people when they were hypocritical, and he overturned the tables of the money changers and animal sellers in the outer court of the Temple because they barred the poor’s access to God. Maggie understands this.
Maggie also understands that to be a disciple is to follow the way of Jesus, to follow in his footsteps. That is why she welcomes all kinds of people into her home and lives and works side by side with them. That is why she feeds Confederate soldiers and cares for wounded soldiers from both sides. And that is why she starts a school so black children might have the same access to education as white children.
In Maggie’s context, love isn’t a feeling, dependent upon the ups and downs of one’s emotions, but rather a decision to be caring and giving and healing and respectful to all she meets. That doesn’t mean she is perfect, though. Maggie has struggles and doubts and feels hurt when people dislike and criticize her for busting through the town’s carefully constructed boundaries. But it will not stop her from the hard practice of loving others.
Personally, I would like to be like Maggie. I really would. I think we need more people like her in today’s world. And personally I don’t care who or what they believe in. I only care that they practice the discipline of loving their neighbors, seeking healing, health, and wholeness for all people and for our ailing planet. If they – or you – do, then take my hand and let’s get to work.
Until the summer of 1864, Maggie’s activities have been along the lines of many women who wished to make changes in American society. But this changes once Maggie learns that Blaineton, her hometown, has had a recent change in School Board policy. The school located on the town square is now for white students only, while the school on Water Street, where most people of color in Blaineton live, is reserved for black students. However, as the Water Street population dwindled over the course of the war, school age children on Water Street dropped to a total of six students and the town stopped funding their school. Maggie’s activism emerges as she and friends Emily and Rosa set out to find a way to give these children a decent education.
Since, industrialist Josiah Norton is chairman of the School Board, Maggie seeks him out and suggests that, given the situation, black children should be educated with white children in the school on the town square. Josiah explains that the majority of the townspeople would be against such a move and that she does not understand politics: “Mrs. Smith, you are a woman, and naturally you have a woman’s heart. However, you lack the rational capabilities of a man. These greater issues are beyond your comprehension. You should be content with keeping house.”
Insulted and furious, Maggie decides to “shake the dust off her feet” and move on. “I thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Norton. However, I am afraid I must leave. My husband is watching our baby and it is time I returned to ‘keeping house,’ as you say.”
Later, Maggie, Emily, and Rosa travel to Water Street to check on a rumor that a school is still there. What they find is a fourteen-year-old Mandy Hancock teaching a group of five children in a ramshackle building with few resources.
The women resolve to start a private school and locate it at Greybeal House, where all three live. To help them, they recruit Maggie’s sister-in-law, Abigail, who had been a teacher before she married.
When Josiah hears of the plan, he feels she is sticking her nose into places it doesn’t belong.:
When Maggie responds by saying her interest in the problem is because she is a woman and a mother. “And mothers, regardless of race, want their children to receive an education and fair treatment. And before you say it, I also am perfectly aware that the vicissitudes of life often make educating one’s children difficult. If more men took the time to recognize the hopes and dreams women have for their children –”
“Then the world would be in a pretty mess, don’t you think? No, Mrs. Smith, you know nothing of politics and nothing of the greater world. And that is as it should be.”
If Josiah thinks it is bad enough that Maggie is sticking her nose into a political matter by starting a private school, he goes ballistic when the new school enrolls a family of Irish students, who are the brothers and sisters of Moira and Birgit, who are working as maids at Greybeal House.
But Maggie’s compassion comes into play because the Irish are considered “less than” other people of European ancestry. To complicate matters, the Brennan children live on a farm a good five miles or so outside of town, which means someone would need to bring them to school each day . But that is impossible because the family needs their only wagon for farm work. Of course, the children could board with families in town. But it would cost more than their family could afford. Additionally, who would be willing to house Irish children?
As far as Maggie is concerned, the answer is simple: the children will attend the school at Greybeal House and board there.
This of course does not go down well with many people and causes an uproar that threatens the not only the school, but life in the town itself. And that is how Maggie finds herself in the unlikely position of trying to bring sense and healing back to the people of Blaineton.
But is she willing to take the big leap into politics itself? When Maggie reveals to Eli that some individuals have suggested that she run for Town Council (despite the fact that women cannot vote), she almost immediate demurs: “I probably shouldn’t. It’s just not done. Women don’t belong in politics.”
To which, her supportive husband replies, “Bunkum! I think women ought to be in politics. Men are complete asses.”
“See that? You had to remind me about my tendency to cuss. That is because, like every other man I know, I’m an impulsive dunderhead.”
Obviously, Eli believes that the male preserve of politics could use the moral tempering that women possess.
But will Maggie take the plunge?
Well, if she does, it will be for very specific reasons.
And I’ll talk about those reasons in my next blog.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder