Photo from https://pxhere.com/en/photo/1592243
Allow me to be honest, times are just flat out tough for Maggie, Eli, and their friends. They live in 1860s USA, an era during which life presented plenty of challenges even in the best of times.
Come to think of it, things have not changed all that much, have they? The big issues present in the newly born United States of the 1770s came to a head in the 1860s and continue to beset us today. Sometimes I feel as if we’re a big dysfunctional family. We will not acknowledge that 1) we have serious problems, and 2) we need to work together to make our relationships better. I suspect and fear that until we do, nothing is going to change.
The story in A Good Community kicks off when Mary and Addie Brooks, two homeless, Black teenagers, join the family at Greybeal House and are informally adopted by Nate and Emily. However, when Maggie and Emily attempt to enroll the girls in Blaineton’s school, they are told the school is only for white children. While there once had been a school for children of color on Water Street, this now has been officially closed. Why? So many people in the Black community had moved away at the start of the war that the town decided it was not cost effective to maintain a separate school. At the same time, they decided that children of color would not be admitted to the main school.
Yes, that sort of nonsense did happen. The truth is that segregated schools still exist in New Jersey. These days it is due mainly to where people live. And, since we have local school districts rather than school systems organized via county or even by the state, this has an impact on the quality of the education students in each district receive. Clearly, my state needs to address the situation better, but sadly it’s also one that is easy to ignore. Changing things, making things more equitable, means more expense. And this of course brings up arguments about cost effectiveness. Thus, poorer school districts, which have large Black populations, still struggle to provide their children with a good education.
Back to the story. Faced with the problem of how to educate the Brooks sisters, Emily, Maggie, and friends brainstorm and decide to start a new school, called the Greybeal Academy of Practical Studies. Things look promising at first – until the Irish immigrant Brennan family asks to enroll their children in the school, too. The issue? Maggie had assured industrialist Josiah Norton, who now sits on the town’s School Board, that the school is solely for children of color. However, the Brennan children live far enough from the town that they must board somewhere if they are to get an education. Knowing that the children would not be able to find rooms in the town, the Academy’s leadership decides to move ahead. They admit the Brennan children and provide them with room and board.
Long story short, all this blows up and eventually becomes deadly. A fire allegedly is started up on Water Street, but quickly spreads into Blaineton proper. The town’s population now must work together to fight the fire. NOTE: This was not an easy thing to do! The town may have had a fire brigade with a pump wagon, but firefighting techniques in general were limited to throwing buckets of water to stop a fire’s spread. Also, house construction of the era easily allowed houses to get swallowed by flames.
After the conflagration has been extinguished, the town’s people now must undertake a new task. They need to face the issues that led to the fire. At this point, Maggie suddenly finds herself thrust into the public as she attempts to lead the town’s people through the process of constructive healing. And this just might be a call for her to enter public service.
Since I’m still working on A Balm in Gilead, I need a little extra time think through a summary of the story. It is there (obviously, I wrote a whole book) but as I work on the first revision, I find myself rearranging some of the scenes – and maybe doing a little cutting, as well. I just need a bit of time to think things through so I can write a summary next week and conclude our walk through the “Maggie-verse.”
Stay well, friends. Take care. Be kind. Be patient. And VOTE!
Janet R. Stafford
Provincetown facing the Bay at sunrise. Photo by Janet R. Stafford
Sorry for the delay getting this blog out, but I was away – as you can see from the photo above. Dan and I were able to travel up to Massachusetts to visit my sister and her partner in Provincetown. I was glad we did it. I had not seen her for nearly a year and a half, thanks to COVID, and I missed her. So, we had a few days to reconnect, have some amazing meals, and enjoy the ambiance of Cape Cod.
Now… on to the purpose of this blog!
At the end of A Time to Heal, Eli receives a letter from former foe and current friend, Tryphena Moore, the wealthiest, most powerful woman in Blaineton. In the absence of Eli’s weekly newspaper, she has taken it upon herself to start a new one. The problem is, Tryphena cannot get an editor that meets her exacting standards, and she wants Eli to return to New Jersey to be her editor-in-chief. After a discussion, Eli, Maggie, and the rest of the boarding house family decide to go back to their hometown.
The book that follows, Seeing the Elephant starts in late December 1863 and continues into the middle of 1864. In it, the family at first travels by train in a private car belonging to Maggie’s brother, Samuel Beatty. When they arrive in Blaineton, they learn that Tryphena has sold the property on which the old boarding house had stood and with the money has purchased Greybeal House, a large home located at the edge of town.
Once settled, the family works to get used to the sheer size of Greybeal house. To help with the housekeeping, Maggie and Emily hire two teenage girls from Ireland (Birgit and Moira Brennan). Meanwhile, Eli settles into his job at The Register, Tryphena’s newspaper. At the same time, begins to experience a distressing personal issue: vivid nightmares that stem from his experiences in the war.
Maggie and family also quickly learn that Blaineton is not the same town they had left nearly a year earlier. For one thing, an industrialist by the name of Josiah Norton owns a woolen mill and uniform factory just south of the town and has purchased Maggie’s old lot, on which he has built a large, fancy hotel. When the industrialist visits The Register, tension almost immediately develops between down-to-earth Eli and wealthy, pretentious Josiah.
Another new development to the north of Blaineton is the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. Much to Maggie and Eli’s unease, Frankie seeks a position there and is hired by Dr. Winston Stanley to work as a non-ordained chaplain in the women’s convalescent ward.
The novel now focuses on Eli’s story as he struggles with nightmares (a symptom of with what we now know is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and becomes intrigued by the disturbing changes that are starting to take place in the Western New Jersey Hospital. Inquisitive newspaperman that he is, Eli takes a small cottage on the hospital grounds, from which he investigates the growing story at the hospital, and discreetly receives treatment from Dr. Stanley.
The Great Central Fair starts its story about two weeks after the end of Seeing the Elephant, covering the first couple of weeks in June 1864. The novella focuses on Maggie’s oldest daughters: Lydia who now works as a doctor at the Western New Jersey Hospital, and Frankie who continues to serve as a non-ordained chaplain to the women at the hospital.
Frankie is thrilled to learn that her beau, Sergeant Patrick McCoy, is being sent to Mower General U.S. Hospital in Philadelphia to work as a steward (a doctor’s assistant). Best of all, he a week’s leave and wants to spend it in Blaineton with Frankie and her family.
Shortly thereafter, Lydia learns that her friend, Captain Philip Frost, also will be taking up a position as a doctor at Mower and wishes to spend his leave with the family at Greybeal House. A widow since May 1863, Lydia claims that she and Philip are friends and nothing more. However, once Philip arrives at Greybeal House, he makes his intentions known to Lydia, and she reciprocates.
Both couples – along with chaperone Chester Carson – travel to Philadelphia to enjoy the city, particularly the Sanitary Fair. The fair was one of numerous gatherings held throughout the Union to raise funds for the Sanitary Commission, an organization that sought to improve conditions in the soldiers’ camps.
At its heart, The Great Central Fair is an historical romance. Frankie and Patrick’s love continues to grow, while Lydia and Philip’s relationship takes an unexpected turn. In addition, there is a side story about a clandestine relationship between gay man Chester Carson and his friend Alfred Benning, who owns a photography gallery in Philadelphia.
In short, love is in the air in the City of Brotherly Love.
My final blog about the Saint Maggie books will focus on A Good Community and A Balm in Gilead (due to be published sometime in 2021).
Until then, stay well and, as Bill and Ted say, “Be excellent to each other.”
Janet R. Stafford
Whitworth Cannon: British-made Whitworth cannon used by Confederate artillerymen, mark a battery position in Schultz Woods. National Park Service, Gettysburg.
Three of the stories in the Saint Maggie universe have to do with Gettysburg – or more correctly with Gettysburg and Middletown (located 7 miles to the north and now known as Biglerville). The trio of stories take up the entire year of 1863.
I have visited Gettysburg several times. It has never been too far from where I live on the East coast. I am drawn to it because of its tangible historical spirit. After all, it was the location of a significant battle of the Civil War. The conflict ended with a total of 51,112 casualties. The Union experienced 23049: 3,155 dead, 14, 529 wounded, and 5365 missing. The Confederates had 28,063 casualties: 3,903 dead, 18, 735 injured, and 5425 missing.
Amazingly, although the battle took place in the fields outside of the town, the people living there were subject to arms and artillery fire. Despite that, the only person killed in the town was Jennie Wade. The town itself was traumatized, with wounded soldiers housed in private homes and many public buildings. A once prosperous and bustling town was left struggling to recover mostly on its own.
Walk by Faith, the second full-length novel in the series, kicks off with a fire early in 1863 when the boarding house and Eli’s print shop burn down under suspicious circumstances. Most of the men are away at the time. Eli and Carson are in the field as war correspondents. Patrick McCoy (Frankie’s beau) and Edgar Lape (Lydia’s husband) have enlisted in the army and are away with the New Jersey Fifteenth Volunteer Regiment. Left behind are Maggie and young son Bob, Emily and baby Natey, Emily’s husband Nate, self-emancipator Matilda Strong and daughter Chloe, Lydia, Frankie, and Jim “Grandpa” O’Reilly.
When Maggie’s brother, Samuel Beatty, learns that the boarding house has suffered a fire, he takes them into his mansion, located several miles outside of Blaineton. Eli and Carson, meanwhile, hurry back to New Jersey. Once Maggie and Eli are together again, the tension between them becomes obvious: she wants him to be safe and stay with the family, while he wants to cover the war. Eli even goes so far as to decide to move everyone to his old family home in Gettysburg without Maggie’s input. Furthermore, he demands that Maggie comply, and this drives them further apart. Once the family has relocated, Eli and Carson return to the New Jersey Fifteenth.
What no one knows is that by mid-summer the town will be involved an iconic battle of the Civil War.
The story picks up pace as Maggie and family hear frightening rumors of the approach of the Confederate Army, while Eli and Carson are exposed to the dangers of the battlefield while covering the New Jersey Fifteenth. When the fight finally comes Gettysburg, the old Smith home is turned into a field hospital, as were many other homes and buildings in the town.
Walk by Faith essentially deals with the question, “Who is my neighbor?” But it also deals with the physical, emotional, and spiritual damage war brings to individuals and the community.
A Time to Heal continues the Gettysburg saga as Eli and Nate move their wives and young sons north to Middletown, something facilitated by Eli’s Quaker sister and brother-in-law who live nearby. Maggie is pregnant and needs a quiet environment after the rigors of her experience in Gettysburg. Emily needs the same thing: she suffered during her separation from little Natey (whom she had sent to stay with Eli’s family in Middletown) and is now exhausted from caring for the wounded at the Smith House.
Frankie, Lydia, Carson, Matilda, Chloe, and Grandpa graciously stay behind in Gettysburg to care for the wounded soldiers in their house. During that time, Frankie is moved by Caleb, a young Confederate soldier who is yearning to return to Virginia to find his wife and child. The result: Frankie and Lydia decide to help him go home, and this means they are aiding and abetting the enemy. Another law had already been broken when the family helped Gideon Opdyke. Gideon was someone they knew from Blaineton. He had been bullied into joining the Confederate Army by his brother Lemuel, who supported the CSA cause. But all Gideon wants now is to move west, start a farm, and live in peace. During the battle, the family had moved him into an unused room in the house and given him new clothing to replace his uniform. He eventually is moved up to Middletown and is sojourning there before he moves on.
Meanwhile, newly widowed Lydia makes the acquaintance of Capt. Philip Frost, a physician with the US Army, who is in town to relocate wounded soldiers from people’s homes and public buildings to Camp Letterman, an army hospital being built outside Gettysburg. Eventually, Capt. Frost notices that one of the soldiers from his original count (Caleb) seems to be missing. When Philip mistakenly identifies Gideon as the soldier and Eli as the person responsible for allowing him to move to Middletown, the two men are arrested. Now Maggie, Lydia, and Frankie must step up and prove Eli’s innocence and explain Gideon’s situation.
The Christmas Eve Visitor is a short-story that takes place – when else? – on Christmas Eve of 1863. The Johnson and Smith families are continuing to recover from their experiences with the war, but now are faced with a new issue: all the young children have taken ill, including Maggie and Eli’s new baby, Faith. The unexpected arrival of peddler Ira Strauss in the middle of a snowstorm takes them all by surprise. Although they cannot afford to purchase anything, Maggie invites him in from the cold and feeds him a bowl of soup. A thankful Ira then proceeds to give each member of the family gifts that somehow connect with what they are needing at that moment and in their lives. This, of course, leaves them with numerous questions. How does he know who they are and what they need? Who is Ira, anyway? What was he doing out in the cold in the middle of a snowstorm? And where did he disappear to the next morning? This old-fashioned Christmas miracle tale is warm and hopeful.
Next: Seeing the Elephant, a novel that returns the family to Blaineton; and The Great Central Fair, a novella in which Frankie and Lydia are reunited with Sgt. Patrick McCoy and Capt. Philip Frost. The quartet (with Chester Carson as their chaperone) take a trip to see Philadelphia’s big “Sanitary Fair,” one of many that were held around the United States at that time to raise money for the Sanitary Commission. I guess you could call this an historical romance as well as a tour of 1864 Philadelphia. Frankie and Patrick reconnect in the City of Brotherly Love, while Lydia and Phil voice their true feelings for each other.
Later, gators! Be good. Be kind. Be safe.
Janet R. Stafford
Image from: The Historical Marker Database: Flemington Fairgrounds. Long story short: The Flemington Fairgrounds hosted Camp Fair Oaks during the Civil War era and is featured in my novella, The Enlistment. Today, neither the camp nor the Fairgrounds exist. In their place is a shopping center.
In the previous blog, I wrote about two short stories set in the 1850s. Today, we’re moving into the 1860s with the first novel I ever published, Saint Maggie, and The Enlistment, a novella that features Maggie’s daughter, Frankie.
Saint Maggie takes place over the years 1860-1861. It was based on a story I came upon while writing a research paper for a graduate school tutorial. The real story involved a young, charismatic Methodist preacher by the name of Jacob S. Harden. He preached powerful sermons and was good-looking to boot, all of which meant that he was Ground Zero for young women with romance in their eyes and designing mothers who hoped to land a pastor as a son-in-law. Harden fell prey to one of those mothers, and, thanks to a shotgun marriage, soon found himself and Louisa Dorland at the altar. The marriage, predictably, was unhappy. Frustrated and stressed out, Harden decided to resolve the situation. Unfortunately, the resolution was not something a pastor (or anyone) should do and led to a trial and a conviction. Curious? Read the research paper here.
When I began writing Saint Maggie, I decided to change a few things up. Rather than renting a room from a couple, the Rev. Jeremiah Madison was placed in Maggie’s boarding house because the Methodist church’s parsonage had burned down. (This was not unusual in the 1800s, fire was an ever-present danger for homes and towns.) I did not want Jeremiah to have a liaison with Maggie, and so I paired her up with Eli within the first chapter. Instead, Jeremiah becomes involved with Leah Beatty (Maggie’s niece and daughter of wealthy Samuel Beatty, from whom Maggie is estranged). When Leah becomes pregnant, the couple are forced into a marriage. Neither party is happy. Leah is put out because they must live in the boarding house rather than in a house that her father could provide. Jeremiah is frustrated because he has a loveless marriage and a complaining wife.
Unexpectedly, both Maggie and Leah become ill with what is diagnosed as “gastric fever.” But it proves to be something else – something malicious. Eventually, Jeremiah becomes the primary suspect, but Maggie and Eli keep feeling that there’s more to the story and began a search of the truth.
The book also touches on the characters’ activity in the Underground Railroad and the ever-present threat of being discovered and facing charges as set out by the Fugitive Slave Act. In addition, the clouds of war are gathering overhead. By the conclusion of Saint Maggie, war has broken out between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America.
Saint Maggie is historical fiction with a mystery within it, as well as a bit of romance.
I wrote the novella, The Enlistment, six years after Saint Maggie was published. I realized that there was a chunk of time between March of 1861, when Saint Maggie ends, and early 1863, when the follow-up novel, Walk by Faith, begins. I had done some reading about women in Civil War armies and, being interested in women’s history, wondered what would happen if Frankie tried to follow her beau Patrick into the army. (This was hinted at in a letter Patrick writes to Frankie in one of the other novels.) When I learned that a military camp (Camp Fair Oaks) was in Flemington, New Jersey and actively recruiting in August of 1862, and that it was possible for Frankie to get from Blaineton (in Warren County) to Flemington (in Hunterdon County) rather quickly by train, the story became possible. So, I went for it.
The plot begins when Patrick and Lydia’s husband Edgar doing their patriotic duty and leaving for Camp Fair Oaks to enlist in the New Jersey 15th Volunteers. Frankie resents the fact that women are supposed to stay home and tend the hearth, and impulsively decides to join Patrick to fight the Johnnies (aka, Confederate soldiers). So, she cuts her hair, puts on male clothing, runs away, and tries to enlist. The only one who knows what Frankie has done is Chloe Strong, young daughter of self-emancipated slave Matilda Strong, who now make their home at Maggie’s boarding house. When Frankie’s absence is noticed, Chloe spills the beans – and a panicked Maggie, accompanied by husband Eli, goes in search of her errant daughter.
At Camp Fair Oaks, Frankie learns that a) she looks too much like a young teenage boy and cannot join the army, and 2) the regiment has all the drummer boys they can use. Depressed, she wanders the camp in search of Patrick. What she finds is a separate camp for the regiment’s laundresses. After making friends with three of the women, she asks to join them. They accept her and it looks as if Frankie will be able to stay near Patrick.
But will Maggie and Eli be able to locate Frankie? And how will Frankie acclimate to life in the camp?
Part of the story’s fun for me was mapping out the ways that women served in the military during the Civil War. They were laundresses, cooks, and various “camp followers.” It also seems that around 400 women passed as men and fought on both sides of the conflict. I even wrote a woman soldier into the novella. Since clothing in that era was an indicator of gender, a woman wearing men’s clothing (even if the soldiers knew she was a woman) might very well be accepted as a man – especially if she could shoot and fight as well as a man.
The Enlistment is a “pre-spin off,” if that makes any sense. For many years I have planned to write a series of Frankie’s own. It’s taken a while, but at the end of A Balm in Gilead (to be published in 2021) our feisty, petite redhead will be moving away from Blaineton and go off to have adventures with Patrick… and it looks as if they’ll be out west. Change of venue! Whee! I’ve been to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and loved it. So, my love of the area and – God willing – another visit there will help me get the story rolling.
Next time let’s look at the two Civil War era full-length novels, Walk by Faith and A Time to Heal.
And don’t forget to be kind. Things are stressful enough without adding to it, right?
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder