Image from http://clipart-library.com/
I’ve said this again and again: the issues of the 1860s still echo in the USA today. And I’ll say again that when I began research for a novel about an epidemic striking Blaineton, New Jersey, I had no idea that the world would soon be fighting the COVID-19 epidemic. Even though typhoid fever is quite different from COVID-19, the common denominator is the “what is it, how to do we help the ill, and how do we treat it” element.
For those living in the USA’s Civil War era knowledge was limited. That period is located just before theories about germs and the “discovery” of bacteria become acknowledged and widely accepted, something that seems to have taken until the end of that century. A Balm in Gilead therefore focuses partly on how the doctors, with limited knowledge, struggle to uncover the cause of the epidemic and how to stop its spread.
As for us in the 21st century, we knew COVID-19 was a coronavirus – but, yikes! It was nothing like the other coronaviruses. Thank goodness – and science – that vaccines were developed relatively quickly. The challenge now is to get enough people vaccinated to significantly slow the spread down, and to continue caring for those who have become sick. (Thank you doctors, nurses, and all hospital workers!)
I also realize that the feisty, if not fractious populace of Blaineton tends to mirror the population of the USA of my own time. Racism, political strife, social and economic stress, and a host of other things that keep us apart today were active then. Since I have served in ministry for 29 years, I (and by proxy Maggie) believe in some basic life-laws. One is the Greatest Commandment from Jesus (which actually is two commandments in one): “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31). We also embrace the Apostle Paul’s assertion that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) In short, and I know this sounds harsh, one simply cannot claim to follow Jesus if one refuses see that we are all children together and continues to sort people into “worthy” and “unworthy” categories.
All of that means is that the calling to love others even extends to those whom we dislike. As we know, Maggie dislikes Josiah Norton’s behavior and attitudes, but in Gilead, she does not hesitate to visit him when he takes ill. Thus, I fear that she is better at loving others than I ever will be… although perhaps writing her will help me become better at embodying those beliefs in my own actions.
All of that said, once Maggie makes the decision to run for government, she has this to say on her first “stump speech”:
“What I am trying to convey is that our town has suffered two great cataclysms: a fire and a typhoid fever epidemic, and they occurred one right after the other. It was a great shock. But we worked together and in that working together, we were able to build and to heal and to help.
“So, I thank God for the good people of our town and for those outside it. I stand amazed at what people can do if they work together when faced with a serious problem. I pray now that our town may move forward. I would hope that, should I be elected to the Council, we might engage our town strive to provide help for those in need and to those who are ill, and to engage in activities that bring us together in our amusements, daily labor, and projects in order to secure a strong, secure, and peaceful future for Blaineton. If we do that, then when the next difficulty besets us – and believe me, it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ – we will remember who we are and why we are here and that united we can do anything.”
My final thought for this blog: Remember who you are and why we are all here together. And remember that united we can do anything.
Stay well. Be kind. Love others.
Janet R. Stafford
I know I have been MIA (Missing in Action). Like everyone else, I have been balancing life under COVID and worrying about our nation. After Christmas, I just needed some time off, so I focused on the book and the work I do for First United Methodist Church. Blogging needed to take a back seat for a bit.
But now I’m back with good news. The new Saint Maggie book, A Balm in Gilead, is getting close to the beta reader stage, which means it is that much closer to actual publication.
For the next few blogs, I’ll be writing about the two main plots in the book, as well as changes for some of our friends, the introduction of a couple of new characters, and the direction the series might be taking. Spoiler alert! There's a spin off in the making.
First, let’s take look at what’s up with Maggie in this book. You may notice from the blog’s image that she seems to be doing some heavy pondering.
When we left off in A Good Community, she was presented with the idea of running for Town Council. Here’s where Maggie stands when A Balm in Gilead kicks off:
The night after the fire, I was asked to address the citizens of our town. The people there only became ready to hear my message by the grace of God and by a lovely, supportive speech by Rosa Hamilton, a young woman of color who resides with us. Rosa told them the story of how she came to live with us and attested to my character in a genuine and convincing manner.
As for me, I presented a simple idea: we are called to help everyone affected by the fire, regardless of color. Whether it was God reaching out through Rosa’s words or through my own that convinced them, I do not know. What I do know is this: since that evening, many of our town folks have pitched in to help rebuild that homes that had been burned by the fire.
A completely unanticipated result of my speech was that I have been encouraged to take on a larger role in Blaineton. Several people, my brother and sister-in-law among them, are encouraging me to run for Town Council.
The very idea makes me laugh. Can you imagine such a thing, Journal? A woman running for Town Council? It heretofore has been unheard of. And this causes me to hesitate. Should I “throw my hat in the ring,” as they say, or decline?
You see, I simply do not know if it is the right thing now – both for the town and for me. Simply put, I am busy. We have many people currently living in our house, which requires a great deal of extra work. For another, running for the Council does not feel like “me.”
Do not misunderstand. I have no doubt that a woman should and at some time will run for political office – sooner rather than later, I hope – but I must ask myself, “Where is my heart?”
In other words, she doesn’t know whether she will do it or not. Maggie dislikes being in the public eye, mainly because she has taken such heat for the way she ran the old boarding house and the way that she and the people at Greybeal House now live their lives. Maggie is open-hearted and kind – so basically anyone can show up at her door and get invited in. Most people in Blaineton, however, are under the impression that she has absolutely no social filtering skills. Maybe not. But she is full of love skills.
As the story progresses, Maggie becomes more adept at putting herself out there, as well as standing her ground when challenged. A woman running for office is a novelty in 1864. The state of New Jersey does not permit white women to vote (and let us not forget that it does not permit Black men and women to vote either). That means Maggie's constituents are severely curtailed. She is more likely to win votes from women and people of color than from white men. So, running is probably an exercise in futility.
And yet the Blaineton town constitution contains an intriguing little omission. It does not specify exactly who may run for office, most likely presuming that only white males would do such a thing. That means Maggie has an opportunity to break the gender barrier. But will anyone listen to her? Should she be elected, would the men on the Council discount her input? Would she even be any good in a new role?
So, yep. Maggie has a lot of questions to ponder and in this book goes on a personal journey, even as the entire town embarks on a frightening journey of its own.
More about that frightening journey thing next week.
Meanwhile, practice love, be kind, be smart, and stay well.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder