(I designed a little sign for Maggie's possible run for Town Council)
Sorry! I don't have a cover image yet for A Balm in Gilead and have not been able to find an appropriate image for typhoid fever, aside from that of the ubiquitous Typhoid Mary, who was around later in the 19th century.
The new novel in the Saint Maggie series will be published early in 2021. Its title was taken from both a Bible verse and a hymn. I realize that many of my book titles and content are biblical, and this might lead some people to think that I write Christian fiction. But to reiterate, I don’t write Christian fiction. I believe that genre is designed to support religious and social beliefs among a specific Christian cohort. That’s not what I do.
What I do is write historical fiction that happens to be about Maggie (a Christian of the Methodist variety), Eli (her former Quaker husband who identifies as a free-thinker), and her unconventional household, which includes bests friend Emily and Nate who are Black, and Lydia and Frankie, her daughters from her marriage to John Blaine. Lydia is interested in medicine and Frankie wants to be a pastor. This mix of characters allows me to explore the issues of the 1860s: race, slavery, war, religion, women’s rights, industrialization, disease and medical care, and more.
Do I have an agenda? Of course, I do. I’m a writer. If you write, you have an agenda, even if it simply is to make people laugh (comedy), feel hot (porn), or fall in love with their characters (romance). In my case, I believe that humans are better as individuals and as a community when they practice the art of loving others. That includes, among other things, being merciful, just, kind, and patient. My books are sort of an 1800s petri dish for how people might have dealt with the questions of their time.
A Balm in Gilead finds Maggie in an interesting place. She had begun her journey as “that woman,” a widow whose best friends are Black, who participates in the Underground Railroad, and who runs a boarding house full of men from the edges of society. But now she finds herself growing into one of the leading figures of her little town. Although Maggie would much rather continue to lead by example, which is her proverbial “wheelhouse,” she suddenly finds that friends and family are pushing her into making a run for Town Council.
Maggie lives in a historical era when the very first women in the United States were tentatively venturing into the political field as candidates – and doing when most states (except for a few territories out West) did not permit women to vote. Now, tender, self-effacing Maggie finds herself as a reluctant flag-bearer for the nascent votes-for-women movement.
Her ability to lead and think on her feet becomes evident to everyone when a typhoid fever epidemic strikes the woolen mill and uniform factory to the south and then spreads to the town. But Maggie is not alone in fight. Dr. Lydia Frost, her eldest daughter, works with colleague Dr. Fred Lightner to discern how the epidemic happened and how to stop it. (Note: my characters live at a time right before germ theory has become established and when contact tracing is in its infancy, if not still in the womb. In other words, they live with more questions than answers.) The epidemic also inspires Frankie Blaine, Maggie’s other adult daughter, to serve as a volunteer nurse, along with some of the other women in the story.
As those of us living today can attest, the current COVID pandemic certainly has dominated our lives, but is not the only thing going on for most of us. There are other things taking our energy and attention: our jobs or the lack thereof, finances, an election, family joys and issues, and our children’s education, to name just a few.
The same holds true when it comes to the typhoid fever epidemic in Blaineton. People continue to live other aspects of their lives. Thus, we find Eli dealing with changes in the staff at The Register. Carson deciding to chase a dream. Lydia announcing that she is pregnant. Frankie’s beau, Patrick, being mustered out of the army, which means a marriage looms on the horizon. Two new characters falling in love. And Maggie, who must decide whether she wishes to run for Town Council. It’s clear that others want her to do so, but does she want to do it? Thus, in words that Maggie would understand, she needs to discern where is she being called. After all, a woman running for office at a time when women cannot even vote is… well, kind of crazy.
One final note: My plan has been to end the series somewhere in 1865, probably some months after Lincoln’s assassination. I would like to spin Maggie’s now-adult daughters off into their own series. Indeed, some of that is starting in the new novel. Why would I start telling her daughters’ stories? Well, the last quarter of the 19th century is full of issues and storylines that are still with us in the early 21st century. However, letting go of Maggie and Eli is going to be tough for me. After all, I love them. They’re good friends. But when the time is right, I’m pretty sure the characters will tell me that they are ready to “retire.”
As for next week, who knows what I’ll talk about? Maybe the election of 1864. Although I’m kind of sick of elections, at least this one will be in another era. No internet! No phones! No TV! No radio! Just newspapers, folks. Just newspapers! As the theme from the old TV show “Gilligan’s Island” says, “It’s primitive as can be.”
Until then, stay focused, stay centered, and love one another. Really. Love one another, despite the politics.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder