This image of a woman sitting at her desk reminds me of Maggie, especially in "The Dundee Cake." She is tired, worried, and not sure where to turn or what to do. I purchased the image from I-Stock, but have yet to use it for a cover. Just the same, I like it.
Who is “Saint Maggie”? Well, for one, the Maggie in my stories is not a saint, as described by the Roman Catholic Church. However, she is a good-hearted, Methodist woman who tries to love those whom she meets. She doesn’t always succeed, but she tries.
That said, these books are not “Christian fiction.” They are fiction about a woman who embraces one of the many Christian sects. The books are not out to sway readers to any viewpoint within Christianity, except for being kind, merciful, and loving, values that are found in most religions and philosophies. I try to people my stories with characters who hold diverse religious and philosophical outlooks… well, diverse for mid-19th-century New Jersey.
To be honest, I did not intend to write a series. I wrote Saint Maggie, my first full-length novel with every intention of going on to another story set in another time. The book was based on research I had done for a graduate school tutorial. My paper was about a young pastor who lived in Warren County, New Jersey, a shotgun marriage, and a trial. You may find the paper on the Squeaking Pips website. Just click on the “About” tab. Then click on the drop-down for “The Story Behind Saint Maggie” The paper is mainly about how the minister, Jacob Harden, was perceived by the press of his time; but his story is included in it, as well.
I figured I probably would write another historical fiction novel, since I love history. But that quickly changed as I made the circuit of a few local book clubs. Readers were starting to ask me, “What comes next?”
Huh? I hadn’t realized that I had left things open for Maggie’s story to continue. But when I looked at the book’s last chapter, I saw that it indeed would be possible to do just that.
But do what? I mean, where would I take the characters from that point?
Well, I had been entertaining doing something based in Gettysburg during the battle there. Once I figured out how to move Maggie and her unconventional family to that town, the story took shape. And off I went, jumping my characters from 1861 to 1863.
During those early years, I wrote full-length novels. In 2015, I decided to write a short story (“The Christmas Eve Visitor”) as a “thank you” Christmas gift to my small group of fans. After that, other stories and novellas followed, as I realized that I also enjoyed writing shorter fiction.
The next few blogs then will be devoted to introducing you to Maggie, the other characters, and the stories chronologically as they move through the mid-19th century. That chronology looks like this:
Today we’re going to tackle the first two on this list.
Set in 1852, "The Dundee Cake" introduces Maggie, a widow who is struggling to keep her boarding house afloat at Christmastime. She is still mourning her husband, John, and little boy, Gideon, both of whom died from rheumatic fever a few years earlier. Maggie works to keep her chin up for her daughters, Lydia (age 10) and Frankie (age 6), but it isn’t easy. She also mourns her Aunt Letty, who died the previous year. Without Letty, it is nearly impossible for one woman to keep the boarding house tidy and prepare meals for the boarders (struggling writer Chester Carson; an old Irishman by the name of James “Grandpa” O’Reilly; and two young apprentice lawyers, Geoffrey Illington, and Lucius Kemp). Maggie is determined to live by Jesus’ command to love others as she loves herself. So, she loves and respects all those who stay in her house. As a result, she is richly repaid in love and respect, but little in the way of cash. As the book notes, “The trouble was love and respect did not pay her bills.”
Realizing that she needs help, Maggie takes stock of her finances and hires a cook, by the name of Emily Johnson. The two eventually become friends, even though Emily is Black, and Maggie is not. What follows is an old-fashioned, slightly O. Henry-esque Christmas tale. When a disaster strikes Emily and her husband Nate, Maggie finds a way to help them, despite her financial troubles. Her generosity in turns leads to more generosity.
As some of you know, “The Newcomer” is the most recent among the Saint Maggie short stories. This tale, set in 1855, is about a newcomer by the name of Elijah Smith who stops over in Blaineton on his way to New York City. He is slightly disreputable – but is a guy who knows how to get what he needs without hurting people. For instance, he is not above sneaking into someone’s barn unannounced and spending a night or two in it while in transit. But what happens in Blaineton changes Eli’s life: a little redhaired girl by the name of Frankie catches him checking out an old house on her property, quickly discerns that he needs a place to stay, and leads him to her mother, a woman named Maggie who runs a boarding house and happens to have a room for rent.
Eli really wants to rent the old outbuilding. He is a newspaper man without a newspaper, and sees that, with a little work and gentle finagling, he could establish one there. So, he and Maggie work out a deal, and in the process discover that the both hold anti-slavery beliefs. But there’s one their deal: Maggie makes it clear that he cannot go into the basement in the little old building. In fact, the basement door is locked, and he is not given the key.
This is Eli’s backstory – or, more correctly, his backstory when it comes to Blaineton and his friendship with Maggie (a friendship that will become a relationship in the novel, Saint Maggie).
Next up: Saint Maggie, The Enlistment, and Walk by Faith.
Until, then, friends: stay strong, be kind, and practice love. We can make this world a better place.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder