Image: Cover art for Seeing the Elephant; pen and ink sketch by Diane E. Stafford, my very talented and completely awesome sister!
While some information about Eli’s backstory – the time he spent in New York City and his time among the Sioux – leaks out in earlier novels, the book in which he reveals the most detailed information is Seeing the Elephant. It occurs while Eli is at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane where he is both researching the hospital for an article in The Register (research that reveals some shocking information) and discreetly receiving treatment from Dr. Stanley for what we now identify as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
During his conversations with Dr. Stanley, Eli describes his experiences in the field hospital at Salem Church (VA). This and learning of Maggie’s experiences in Gettysburg during the battle of July 1-3 appear to be the triggering events for Eli’s PTSD. However, the contributing roots of his issues go further back in his history.
Escaping life with a difficult and demanding father at first seemed like the answer to Eli’s troubles. As he tells Dr. Stanley:
“[I] ran away to New York and got into the newspaper business. Found a nice, jolly girl and married her, only to have the poor thing die ten months after giving birth to our son. The baby died upon birth. I tried to run away from that. Did a lot of drinking and chasing after women – anything so I wouldn’t feel the grief. Finally, I left New York and headed west…. Did I tell you I stayed with the Sioux for some years?”
Then he goes on to reveal (briefly) that he established a relationship with a Siouxan woman named Chaytan.
Later, after Eli leaves the hospital and returns home to Maggie, he comes clean to her about his past. He begins by talking about more recent events. One is the horror of checking dead men for family information during the battle of Gettysburg.
“We were charged with searching for identification and information about their families. We had to go through their pockets for any letter or Bible or note that might tell the army who to contact about their death. When we found something, we put it on their chests, their cold, motionless chests.” Eli shuddered. “It was terrible. All those young men, so strong, so full of hope – they’d been slaughtered and were starting to rot in the heat.”
At last he comes completely clean to Maggie about what happened when he left the East.
“Back in ’43, I went west and lived with the Santee Sioux….But that’s not all. While I was with them...” He hesitated. He was afraid to say it. “While I was with them –”
“There was a woman,” she finished.
Stunned, Eli lifted himself up on an elbow. “How did you know?”
Maggie gazed lovingly into his eyes, “My dear husband, you lived with the tribe for five years. Knowing the type of man you are, I think you naturally would seek out a woman, especially if you were thinking of staying with the Sioux.”
Eli sank down onto his side. “I did think about staying with the Sioux, but I hadn’t thought about a woman. It just sort of happened.”
“What was she like?”
“Lovely, strong, intelligent.” He chuckled. “Like you.”
“Was Martha like that, too?”
Eli smiled at the memory. “No. Martha was the bride of my youth. She was what I sought then, a jolly, plump, wide-eyed girl.”
“Did you marry the Sioux woman?”
“Well, not legally. Not the way white people marry. But we were married in our hearts.”
When Maggie asks him why they parted ways, he explains as honestly as he can:
“There came a time when I missed my people. I loved the Santee Sioux, but I realized they were not my community. And Chaytan … didn’t want to leave her people. She was afraid that if she went with me, she would be misunderstood by the whites. She was probably right. I know we would have been shunned by everyone. So, there we were, at an impasse. There was nothing for it but to part.”
Additionally, he and Chaytan did not have children, so they felt free to end their relationship.
And yet Eli feels a sense of guilt over having left Chaytan, just as he feels guilty at having left Maggie to become a war correspondent. He clearly is afraid that running away has become his fatal flaw and that he eventually will desert Maggie, too.
Will Eli do that? Will his past indeed determine his future?
At this point, I feel that Eli has the power to create a new way for himself. As Maggie points out, the fact that he has had children with her makes the difference. He is not the sort of man who would leave the very thing he so badly wants – a loving family. He clearly adores Maggie, son Bob, and baby daughter Faith. Leaving them now would be comparable to leaving part of himself behind.
So, although I feel that Eli’s struggles are not completely over, I do strongly sense that he has told us everything we need to know about his past and he is learning to deal with it, rather than run away from it.
And since I’m now writing the story of how Eli met Maggie and came to live in Blaineton, I believe his backstory finally will be complete. So keep checking the story’s progress on Writing Wednesdays. After all this is new content – albeit content in a rough drafty kind of form. You’re getting to see how I shape Maggie and Eli’s story. Or, more correctly, how they shape their story.
While I’m at it, I strongly recommend Seeing the Elephant for historical fiction readers who are interested in mental health and the treatment of its issues in the mid-19th century. Although it is a fictional work, I tried to be as historically accurate as possible. I am aware, however, that Dr. Stanley’s “talking method” is a bit premature as a form of treatment. But who’s to say that some 1860s doctors did not employ chatting with a patient as a way to uncover what was going on with them mentally and emotionally?
In my next blog, I think I’ll investigate why I write historical fiction and why I feel that it is a valuable genre.
Until then, have a good weekend.
Photo: Bread and butter! Just two of the items on Maggie's boarding house dinner table. Yum!
Now that Eli has made a deal with Maggie to live in the old caretaker’s house, he gets a tour and then finally gets to meet the other members of the Second Street Boarding House at the noon dinner.
But his newspaperman’s curiosity has been piqued. Maggie has told him not to go into the cellar. He has questions banging around his head.
His search for answers has just begun.
I'll be continuing our look into Eli's backstory in the next blog and then... Part 4 of The Newcomer. This tale seems to be growing from a short story into a novellete. I'll just go where the story takes itself and see what happens!
(Photo: The Sanitary Commission Headquarters at The Fahnestock Store, 1863, Gettysburg. The building is still standing today! I'll be mentioning Eli's connection to Gettysburg in this blog. Photo from Library of Congress.)
First off, please excuse the multiple typos in Wednesday's “The Newcomer Part 2” blog. When I post a piece of fiction on my blog, it only has been read two, maybe three times by me. So stuff slips by that usually gets caught by my beta readers.
Now, on to today’s subject.
As I was writing Saint Maggie, my first published novel, I assigned general backstories to my characters. For instance, Maggie is the daughter of a wealthy carriage manufacturer, who had eloped with the son of his business rival and, as a result, was disinherited, as was her husband John. Fortunately, John’s Aunt Letty took the young couple in and, after John died some years later and sensing her own mortality, Letty turned her home into a boarding house to give Maggie a means of income.
On the other hand, Eli’s backstory in the first book is a bit sketchier. We learn that he was raised as a Quaker but no longer has a Meeting. He was born the only son in the middle of a gaggle of five sisters. Interesting factoid: in the first edition of the book, Eli had five sisters and a brother!
But when I wrote the second book, Walk by Faith, I made a glaring error: I mentioned only the five sisters. Where did the brother go? Well, if you remember the old 1970s TV show, Happy Days, you might recall that in the early episodes Richie Cunningham had a sister but also an older brother. Then somehow that older basketball-playing brother disappeared. Nothing ever was said to explain his disappearance. The same goes for Eli’s missing brother. Eventually, I removed all mention of a brother from later editions of Saint Maggie.
The situation also prompted me to create a file called “The Saint Maggie Bible.” It contains all manner of details that keep me (I hope) from making blunders like Eli’s missing brother.
But Eli’s eldest sister, Becky, shows up in several books in the series, and she is quite a character! In the first novel she is painted as an early feminist, who lives independently in New York City. Here’s part of Eli’s conversation with Maggie about Becky.
“Becky’s very keen on the woman question,” Eli was saying.
Maggie turned the book over in her hands. “I wasn’t aware that there was a question about us.”
“Oh, yes. It’s called the emancipation of woman. Becky’s been telling me all about it and sending me books and papers to read. Do you know, twenty years ago, she tried to address a group at an abolition meeting and got booed off the stage! They told her it wasn’t proper for a woman to speak to a group made up of both men and women. Women, yes. But men? Outrage and horror!” (From Saint Maggie)
Another piece of Eli’s backstory is dropped in Saint Maggie by Maggie’s brother, Samuel Beatty, as he chews his sister out at camp meeting about the wrong things she has done, including her choice in men.
“The idea of marrying that newspaperman...it’s completely unacceptable. Why he rarely sets foot in church! And I have heard rumors that he is a free thinker. To judge from those editorials of his, he is obviously a raving abolitionist. I understand they burned his printing press back in Ohio in ‘55! If I were a betting man, I’d wager Smith even approves of that horrible raid on Harper’s Ferry last October! He is sure to side with those who believe that John Brown is a martyr.”
Yikes! Is Eli really all that bad? No. According to Maggie, he is not a fan of John Brown. However, he is a freethinker, an abolitionist (but not necessarily raving), and he did get thrown out of an Ohio town. But Sam’s off-hand about the printing press getting burned stuck in my head and resurfaced in my current work-in-progress.
By the time I published the second book, Walk by Faith, in 2013, Eli had told me more about his backstory. We learn that he grew up in Gettysburg and that the family still owned their old house there. Granted, it was a convenient way for me to get the family into Gettysburg just before the battle of July 1863. But there is much more to Eli’s background.
In one scene in Walk by Faith, Eli reveals to Maggie that his relationship with his father was difficult, to say the least.
“You know we were Friends. Mother was kind and loving. Father, on the other hand, was…well, strict. No, let’s make that judgmental. He owned a prosperous dry goods store in town. As the only son, I was expected to learn the trade. Maggie, can you imagine me as the proprietor of a dry goods store?”
Eli goes on to speak of his love or reading and newspapers. Sadly, his father held another opinion.
“He called it a worthless pursuit and a waste of time. Said I’d never amount to anything if I stuck to it. I didn’t care for his attitude, so at the tender age of fifteen, I ran away from home. Naturally Father was furious. Then he went one step beyond furious and disowned me. Then he went one step beyond that and had me read out of our Friends Meeting. He was a big bug in the Meeting, you see. It meant something to him, even though he wasn’t supposed to be prideful. I figured if religion was all about power and manipulation, then I could do without it…. And I figured I could do without him, too.”
So where did this disowned Quaker-raised boy go? Eli says he went first to Philadelphia and then to New York City, where he…
“Sold newspapers. Got beat up by rowdies. Sold more newspapers. Got beat up again. Learned to avoid the rowdies. Slept out of doors a lot. Grew adept at talking my way into or out of just about anything. Eventually, I ended up working for the Times.”
Meanwhile, Eli’s sister Becky stayed in touch with him and, as Eli says, she “brought the rest of the family along” after the death of his father.
Unlike Maggie, who lived in one place all her life, Eli has moved around, and his backstory is much more complex, if not filled with challenges and tragedy.
That’s all for now. More on Eli's backstory in the next blog!
Image: Janet R. Stafford. This is as close as I can get to what the outbuilding described in Part 2 of The Newcomer looks like. The photo actually is of an outbuilding in Williamsburg, VA.
Why is Maggie hesitant to show the building to Eli? What changes her mind? What is she hiding?
I'll have a continuation of The Newcomer next week.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder