Eli Smith: New York and Out West
Image: Cover art for Seeing the Elephant; pen and ink sketch by Diane E. Stafford, my very talented and completely awesome sister!
While some information about Eli’s backstory – the time he spent in New York City and his time among the Sioux – leaks out in earlier novels, the book in which he reveals the most detailed information is Seeing the Elephant. It occurs while Eli is at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane where he is both researching the hospital for an article in The Register (research that reveals some shocking information) and discreetly receiving treatment from Dr. Stanley for what we now identify as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
During his conversations with Dr. Stanley, Eli describes his experiences in the field hospital at Salem Church (VA). This and learning of Maggie’s experiences in Gettysburg during the battle of July 1-3 appear to be the triggering events for Eli’s PTSD. However, the contributing roots of his issues go further back in his history.
Escaping life with a difficult and demanding father at first seemed like the answer to Eli’s troubles. As he tells Dr. Stanley:
“[I] ran away to New York and got into the newspaper business. Found a nice, jolly girl and married her, only to have the poor thing die ten months after giving birth to our son. The baby died upon birth. I tried to run away from that. Did a lot of drinking and chasing after women – anything so I wouldn’t feel the grief. Finally, I left New York and headed west…. Did I tell you I stayed with the Sioux for some years?”
Then he goes on to reveal (briefly) that he established a relationship with a Siouxan woman named Chaytan.
Later, after Eli leaves the hospital and returns home to Maggie, he comes clean to her about his past. He begins by talking about more recent events. One is the horror of checking dead men for family information during the battle of Gettysburg.
“We were charged with searching for identification and information about their families. We had to go through their pockets for any letter or Bible or note that might tell the army who to contact about their death. When we found something, we put it on their chests, their cold, motionless chests.” Eli shuddered. “It was terrible. All those young men, so strong, so full of hope – they’d been slaughtered and were starting to rot in the heat.”
At last he comes completely clean to Maggie about what happened when he left the East.
“Back in ’43, I went west and lived with the Santee Sioux….But that’s not all. While I was with them...” He hesitated. He was afraid to say it. “While I was with them –”
“There was a woman,” she finished.
Stunned, Eli lifted himself up on an elbow. “How did you know?”
Maggie gazed lovingly into his eyes, “My dear husband, you lived with the tribe for five years. Knowing the type of man you are, I think you naturally would seek out a woman, especially if you were thinking of staying with the Sioux.”
Eli sank down onto his side. “I did think about staying with the Sioux, but I hadn’t thought about a woman. It just sort of happened.”
“What was she like?”
“Lovely, strong, intelligent.” He chuckled. “Like you.”
“Was Martha like that, too?”
Eli smiled at the memory. “No. Martha was the bride of my youth. She was what I sought then, a jolly, plump, wide-eyed girl.”
“Did you marry the Sioux woman?”
“Well, not legally. Not the way white people marry. But we were married in our hearts.”
When Maggie asks him why they parted ways, he explains as honestly as he can:
“There came a time when I missed my people. I loved the Santee Sioux, but I realized they were not my community. And Chaytan … didn’t want to leave her people. She was afraid that if she went with me, she would be misunderstood by the whites. She was probably right. I know we would have been shunned by everyone. So, there we were, at an impasse. There was nothing for it but to part.”
Additionally, he and Chaytan did not have children, so they felt free to end their relationship.
And yet Eli feels a sense of guilt over having left Chaytan, just as he feels guilty at having left Maggie to become a war correspondent. He clearly is afraid that running away has become his fatal flaw and that he eventually will desert Maggie, too.
Will Eli do that? Will his past indeed determine his future?
At this point, I feel that Eli has the power to create a new way for himself. As Maggie points out, the fact that he has had children with her makes the difference. He is not the sort of man who would leave the very thing he so badly wants – a loving family. He clearly adores Maggie, son Bob, and baby daughter Faith. Leaving them now would be comparable to leaving part of himself behind.
So, although I feel that Eli’s struggles are not completely over, I do strongly sense that he has told us everything we need to know about his past and he is learning to deal with it, rather than run away from it.
And since I’m now writing the story of how Eli met Maggie and came to live in Blaineton, I believe his backstory finally will be complete. So keep checking the story’s progress on Writing Wednesdays. After all this is new content – albeit content in a rough drafty kind of form. You’re getting to see how I shape Maggie and Eli’s story. Or, more correctly, how they shape their story.
While I’m at it, I strongly recommend Seeing the Elephant for historical fiction readers who are interested in mental health and the treatment of its issues in the mid-19th century. Although it is a fictional work, I tried to be as historically accurate as possible. I am aware, however, that Dr. Stanley’s “talking method” is a bit premature as a form of treatment. But who’s to say that some 1860s doctors did not employ chatting with a patient as a way to uncover what was going on with them mentally and emotionally?
In my next blog, I think I’ll investigate why I write historical fiction and why I feel that it is a valuable genre.
Until then, have a good weekend.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder