(Image purchased from istockphoto.com)
Oh, my! That is so not a heroic posture. Instead, it might be screaming, I’m tired! Or I don’t know what to do. Or will everyone just please leave me alone? Being a hero isn’t all grand poses and feats of strength and power. Far from it. And the way the woman in the image is sitting at her desk reminds me very much of my character Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith. Sometimes unlikely people are called to be heroic.
This week, I was preparing yet another rewrite of the final three chapters for A Good Community. The first page of Chapter 12 opens with Maggie sitting in her little Methodist Episcopal Church and praying. Her prayer focus is the children of the town – children of color who were being deprived of an education. While she and her friends want to do something about it, Maggie knows it won’t be easy. And so she prays to Jesus Christ:
You were among those least liked. You withstood rebuke and insult. Eventually you suffered death because you offered a different way of living and the Romans and the religious leaders were afraid of you. Is this to be our fate, too? If it is, Lord, so be it. But, please, I don’t want children frightened, hurt, or killed because others fear them. Give me clarity and discernment so that I may protect them. Please.
Sometimes even if the author is describing a situation set in the past, it may connect to a situation in the present. So it is with Maggie’s little prayer. There are many children we might be praying for today: abused, neglected, hungry, injured, ill, poor, ethnic and racial children, and immigrant and refugee children. We (and Maggie) pray for children because they are powerless, and often pawns or victims of adults. We pray for ways to help them and for the courage to follow through.
After I posted Maggie’s prayer on my personal Facebook page, I was surprised at the way nine people responded to it. They were friends, of course, but a thread in which I chatted with one about Maggie’s prayer, this friend wrote, “I want to be like Maggie. She’s my hero!”
Hero. It never occurred to me that Maggie was a hero. Protagonist, yes. Female lead, yes. But hero? Wow.
Maggie is a humble person and probably would demur at being referred to as a hero. But upon reflection, I must say that she is indeed a hero. An unlikely one, to be sure, but a hero, nonetheless.
In the first novel, we see Maggie is a quiet woman running a struggling boarding house who often feels beaten down. And why not? Disowned because she eloped with John Blaine, widowed at a young age, and a bereaved mother when her little boy dies, Maggie starts the boarding house to make ends meet and feed herself and her daughters. Not a terribly astute businesswoman, she soldiers on, even though it often seems as if the wolf is at the door.
It is that soldiering on, that stubbornness that molds Maggie's character, revealing her courage and empowering her later to risk imprisonment and a hefty fine when Nate and Emily invite her to join them in running a station on the Underground Railroad. The town already looks down its nose at her for who she invites into her boarding house. What would they think about hiding self-emancipators?
Years later, in 1860, Maggie has a profound experience while at camp meeting. She realizes that she does not need to be imprisoned by the expectations of others or by her own feelings of inadequacy. And so, she makes a private vow to love God and thereby love others, based upon Jesus’ words in Matthew 22:34-40. She writes in her journal: “I knew in my heart – and not merely in my head – that I was free and that the only one to whom I was accountable was God. I resolved then and there to live a life of love without regret and never mind what anyone said.”
And she seeks to do just that, basing her life not on a mushy, infatuated kind of love, but undertaking a stubborn and dedicated path to embrace all she meets.
That’s a huge expectation for one woman to have. Not surprisingly, her resolve is challenged on a regular basis. In the upcoming book, Maggie has numerous run ins with industrialist Josiah Norton that cause her to feel angry, resentful, and frustrated. After one such encounter, she confides to husband, “Oh, Eli! I don’t like feeling this way! It’s not who I am nor is it who I aspire to be!”
Maggie knows all too well that just because she endeavors to love others as she loves herself, it does not mean the path will be an easy one, nor does it mean that God will somehow protect her from disagreeable and/or dangerous people. Yet, despite insults, snubbings, rumors, and even violence, Maggie stands up when she must. It is clear that she often wishes she could do otherwise, that she could be silent and invisible. But she refuses to take the easy way out. Instead, she welcomes everyone who steps into her house. She forgives her enemies although it is a struggle. And she has a huge heart for those who are downtrodden, lost, and lonely.
Over the course of five novels, Maggie has grown. Over time, her voice and her actions have begun to extend beyond the walls of her home. By the end of A Good Community, she finds herself being offered a larger role in her town’s life.
In my eyes, someone with her determination, love, and forgiveness, and who also is vulnerable, reluctant, and frightened, has just got to be a hero. True heroes don’t dash heedlessly into danger. Rather, they fight because they know that they must, despite their fears and feelings of inadequacy. And so it is with Maggie.
In a way, I should not have been surprised when my friend revealed that she wanted to be like Maggie. Because, you know what? I do, too.
Have a good weekend, friends.
(Image for non-commercial use)
Last Wednesday, I put up chapter 1 of A Good Community. The second chapter focuses on the arrival of Emily and Nate’s new baby. Specifically, we are in the bedroom with Lydia, Birgit, Nate, and Emily at a crucial moment. When Dan was beta-reading the book, he left this note in the margin: “Put them all on unicycles and it’s Cirque du Soleil! Ha, ha…”
As funny as Dan's comment was (and, believe me, I laughed), the description in the book is based on an illustration I found. It's a depiction of a late 18th-early 19th century birth. (Found at http://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2014/06/19th-century-midwives.html)
As you can see, I did not pull the idea out of thin air. The drawing was just one of many ways of helping a mother birth her baby. If you read Saint Maggie, you'll know that Emily squatted while giving birth to Natey. In A Time to Heal, Maggie gives birth in bed. It was all about what was best for mother and baby.
Chapter 2 also reveals why the Johnson baby is named Jarena Lee.
Later, Frankie reveals something to Maggie that simultaneously upsets her mother and ticks her off at her stepfather. The unsuspecting Eli, who has talked Josiah Norton into advertising with The Register and feeling like he is King of the World, arrives home to to have that bubble popped when he realizes his wife is upset with him.
A little domestic drama in Chapter 2, “New Life.” Click on the link to read the PDF
Hope you enjoyed this little look into life in Greybeal House. Next week, the main plot of the story begins to emerge.
On 24 June 1864, I arrived in Blaineton, and was brought to the front parlor of Greybeal House, where I interviewed Maggie and Eli Smith
Janet: I’m so pleased that you two agreed to an interview.
Eli: Why not? It'll be an interesting change of pace being on the other end of an interview. (Chuckles) In fact, I’m finding it a bit intimidating.
Janet: Oh, I hope I’m not intimidating!
Maggie: I don’t believe you are.
Janet: Thank you, Maggie. Let’s get started, shall we? I understand you will be starting a school at Greybeal House.
Maggie: How did you find out? Did someone tell you?
Janet: Uh… yes.
Eli: It’s not a state secret, Maggie.
Janet: No, it isn’t. And don’t worry. The news isn’t common knowledge in town. Yet.
Eli: What paper did you say you were with?
Janet: The Squeaking Pips Weekly.
Eli: Clever name. Never heard of it, but clever name. Where are you located?
Janet: I publish in a remote part of New Jersey. (changes topic) Maggie, how did you decide to start a school in this beautiful old house?
Maggie: It’s a bit of a long story, but we recently found two girls on our property. They were homeless and hungry, so –
Eli (interrupts): So Maggie and Emily did what they always do. Invited ‘em in.
Maggie (to Eli): Well, it’s only right to do that. We’re called to love others as we love ourselves.
Eli: Yep. You two have so much love that Addie and Mary are now living here.
Maggie (explains to Janet): Emily fell in love with the girls. Nate, too.
Janet: Emily is your closest friend.
Maggie (smiles at her husband): Aside from Eli, yes. Nate is married to Emily. They have two children.
Eli: Four now, counting Addie and Mary.
Maggie: Do let me continue, Eli. (to Janet) Anyway, when we went to enroll the girls at Blaineton’s school we were told that colored children were no longer welcome there. Apparently, the School Board decreed that the races should be educated separately.
Eli: (rolls his eyes) Josiah Norton’s fault! He’s the Board’s president. Thinks he’s the biggest toad in the puddle. Actually, he’s a varmint of the first water.
Janet (writing): “Translation: Eli means Norton thinks he’s the most important person in town. Bit actually, he’s just a first-class creep.”
Maggie (disapprovingly): Eli!
Janet (continues): So the Blaineton School is for white children only now?
Maggie: Yes. And worse yet, the town is not providing funding for a colored school because there are only six children on Water Street.
Eli: Then Maggie and Emily learned that there was a private school operating on there.
Maggie: It was barely a school! The building it met in was on the verge of collapse, and the teacher was a young girl, who should have been in school rather than teaching it. So, after some discussion, we decided to start a private school for the children of Water Street –
Eli: Water Street is where most of Blaineton’s colored population lives.
Maggie: And that’s how we came to start a school here at Greybeal House.
Janet: So, you’re doing it yourselves? Do any of you have an experience in education?
Maggie: Well, it's fairly easy to start a school. People do it all the time, don't they, Eli?
Eli: Yeah. But some of 'em close two weeks after they open!
(Editor's note: At this point in time, it was still easy for anyone to start a school, even those without teaching experience. Many of these schools were small and catered to specific people, such as upper-class girls.)
Maggie: That won't be the case with us. We'll stay open. My sister-in-law was a teacher before she married my brother. And one of our household, Rosa Hamilton, wants to learn to be a teacher. We're excited and are making plans! We’ll teach basic subjects, but also offer opportunities for training – cookery, household management, carpentry –
Eli (interrupts): And journalism. Don't forget journalism. I hope we’ll have a couple of students learning the nuts and bolts at The Register.
Janet: You’re the editor-in-chief of the town’s newspaper, aren’t you, Eli?
Eli (beams): Yep. The Horace Greeley of the New Jersey hinterlands!
Maggie: Oh, do stop that, Eli. You’re an important man in our town, and one who has fulfilled his dream. (to Janet) He really has quite a voice in Blaineton.
Janet: What about you, Maggie?
Maggie: I? No. No, I prefer doing things quietly.
Janet: Starting a school for children of color is hardly a quiet thing, especially once word gets out. Do you think it will be controversial?
Maggie: It won’t cause much of a ruckus, I’m sure. Most people expect such a thing from me. They consider me eccentric.
Maggie: Oh, well... I... don't -
Eli (interrupts): I know why. She takes in strays. I’m a good example of that. I rolled into Blaineton, after some fine folks disagreed with an editorial and burned down my printing press out in Ohio. I was rootless, looking for a place to settle so I could start another paper. Then I saw this lovely little outbuilding on Maggie's property. Two stories. Room for a printing operation on the first floor and a bedroom on the second. I asked her if I could rent it. She said yes. (laughs) Do you know, I didn’t give her one penny for six whole months? And she didn’t say a word!
Maggie (smiles): I knew you’d make good on our agreement. Eventually.
Eli: Sweetheart, you have a habit of inviting in all manner of people in need, regardless of color – Emily and Nate when their place burned down. Carson and Grandpa when they were down on their luck. Matilda and Chloe, who were escaped slaves. And now Addie and Mary.
Maggie: Don’t forget Rosa. And I suppose Edward, too. But he’s was not down on his luck.
Eli: No. He just works for The Register and needed a place to live. Oh, and say, what about those folks from the insane asylum?
Maggie: Goodness! That was an emergency, and we got everyone settled elsewhere quickly.
Janet: Sounds like you practice what you preach, Maggie.
Maggie: I try to follow Jesus’ commandments to love God and love others. Love is so necessary. It’s what makes life worth living. It reveals itself in kindness and mercy and even justice.
Janet: I agree. I think if we made our decisions based on love, rather than on opinion, or expediency, or preconceived notions, the world would be a better place. I hope the town learns something from you, Maggie.
Eli: Don't worry. My wife is a powerful woman. She just doesn’t know it. Yet.
Janet: What makes you say that?
Eli: Because she really does love people. She really does care. And she’s fair, or she strives to be fair. And that’s powerful. She really could shape our town. In fact, she will shape our town.
Maggie: Oh, Elijah, no. I don’t think I’m meant to be a public person.
Eli: You should be. (grins at her) You will be. Trust me.
Janet: We have a term where I come from. It’s “Power Couple”. It means a couple that together has an influence over values, attitudes, and even politics. It seems to me that you two are becoming Blaineton’s Power Couple. What do you think?
Maggie: Trutfully? I don’t know whether to be humbled or horrified.
Eli: Remember, Maggie, your sister said you’re now in a position to have moral suasion.
Maggie: Money and position should not give one suasion.
Eli: Yeah, well, like it or not, that’s the way it is. (to Janet) If I'm reading things correctly, I think Maggie and I very well may find ourselves shaping our town.
Maggie: If that's the case, then your power lies in telling the truth.
Eli: And yours lies in love.
Janet: And that is what makes you a Power Couple.
Eli: We’ll see how that all plays out, won't we?
Maggie: Yes, I suppose we shall.
Janet: I want to thank the both of you for taking the time to speak with me. I’m sure my readers will be interested in what you have to say.
Eli (thoughtfully): Squeaking Pips Weekly… (suspiciously) Where did you say you're from?
Janet (abruptly closes her notebook and stands up): Oops! It’s getting late. I must go. Thank you again, Maggie and Eli. I’ll show myself out. (hurries out of the room)
Until Writing Wednesday! (Do you think Eli bought the explanation about where I was from?)
Image from Luykas Groundhog's Columbia County History Adventures, 2014 January 07
The image is a recreation of a Civil War-era parlor in the Vanderpoel House of History by the curator at the Columbia County (NY) Historical Society. The parlor at Greybeal House looked a bit like this, only with a few more sofas and wing chairs.
The other day, I struggled into a corset and crinoline cage (and all the other clothing that go with them), and called an old friend of mine, Seconds later there was a chugging sound and the TARDIS appeared in my family room so the Doctor could take me back to 1864. Typically, first we had to take a hair-raising side trip involving involved Cybermen and Daleks and the safety of Planet Earth. Next time I think I’m going to call Mr. Peabody and Sherman to help me with my time travel. Less drama, more safety. I hope.
Anyway, my interview with Maggie and Eli Smith was scheduled to take place in Greybeal House. I was told to go to the old wing of the building and knock on the door there. It leads to the kitchen, and the kitchen, I was told, was the main place of action for the residents of the house.
The first person I met was Moira Brennan, a sprightly young woman whose light skin is sprinkled with freckles. She has reddish blond hair, and green eyes. In a delightful Irish brogue she explained that she was one of the Greybeal House maids and that Mr. and Mrs. Smith were waiting for me in the front parlor.
“It’s much nicer there, ya see,” she said. “Ya won’t be having the hustle and bustle all around you.” Moira led me out of the kitchen and through a short hallway. (I could see the butler’s pantry to my right.) "And seeing as how we're usually busy at work in the kitchen, we aren’t able to hear someone knocking on the front door. We’ve yet to install a bell that would ring where we work, ya see. So there you are.”
We now were in the great part of the house and striding down the main hall. Moira walks quickly, but as we swept past everything, I was impressed by the sight of a large dining room to my left, a cozy back parlor to my right, a flawlessly polished hallway floor, and a grand staircase leading to the second floor. With the front door straight ahead, Moira suddenly turned and gently knocked on a door to our right. A muffled voice bade us to enter. Moira opened the door and we went in.
“Miss Janet Stafford,” the maid said to the two people sitting in the room.
Maggie and Eli rose from their chairs and walked toward me. At last, I was face to face with the people about whom I have been writing for years.
Maggie is a bit taller than I am. Her face is slightly heart-shaped, and her skin light with a touch of pink to her cheeks. On this day, her auburn hair was neatly and simply pulled away from her face and fastened in a bun at the back of her neck. She wore an equally simple dress: a light-yellow background patterned with small green diamonds, held out by a small crinoline cage. Although not spectacularly beautiful, Maggie’s attractiveness comes from the sense of peace and acceptance that she exudes. And I must say that her smile immediately put me at ease.
Eli was – well, very much Eli in beige trousers decorated with a brown check pattern, a solid brown vest and bow tie, and a dark brown frock coat. And yet the entire ensemble gave the appearance of being haphazard and wrinkled. He is not what anyone today would call a "hunk," but he has a "guy next door" quality, a friendly expression, and brown eyes that twinkle with the possibility of mischief. He stands about half a head shorter than Maggie. His skin is a bit ruddier than hers, hair dark brown, and he wears silver wire-rimmed glasses. And, yes, he is as portly as the books claim and dependent upon a cane (thanks to an event that occurred in the first book).
As they both greeted me warmly, Eli said to refrain from calling him "Mr. Smith" and insisted that I address him as "Eli."
"Fine," I replied. "I'm Janet."
"Well," Mrs. Smith replied with a little laugh, "then I suppose I must be Maggie. Shall we sit?"
We sank onto chairs that had been arranged around a tea table. As I did so, I took care to arrange myself so my crinoline cage didn’t throw my skirts up over my head. Although it is not a skill one needs to master in the 21st-century, it was essential in this setting. The last thing I needed was to embarrass myself in front of my own characters.
Maggie poured me a cup of tea. Eli handed me a slice of apple cake. And the interview began.
To be continued next week.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder