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
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder