Image: unknown, “Oliver Salem,” Silhouettes: An Illustrated Inventory of the American Antiquarian Society, accessed March 13, 2018, http://americanantiquarian.org/silhouettecollection/items/show/166.
The silhouette above doesn’t really represent Eli as I see him. He looks a bit too old, for one. But it’s a portly man with a cane. The information said he has glasses, too, but danged if I can see them. Just imagine Eli as a rather disheveled, heavy-set guy with dark hair and eyes, wire-rim glasses, a cane, and a Jack Blackish edge. So… maybe not that guy in the silhouette after all.
“Searching for images is so hard,” I whined.
Oh, well, on with the blog.
Eli’s backstory didn’t come to me all at once. In fact, it developed throughout the four books of the series. There may be more to come. You never can tell. Eli likes to let things drop, usually when I’m writing dialog between him and Maggie.
In the first book, I knew this much about him: Eli had grown up in the Society of Friends but no longer was part of a Meeting. Born in 1819, he was somewhere in the middle of seven or six children (remember that missing brother). He loved newspapers and dreamed of being the next Horace Greeley, and as a result, ended up in New York City.
In 1840, Eli met a plump, jolly young woman named Martha Emory and at age twenty, he married her. Martha soon became pregnant, but sadly both she and their son die during birth.
The death of his wife and child threw Eli into a tailspin. When Maggie becomes pregnant with their child, Eli reveals his fears to her and relates what happened after he became a widower:
“…I had a great job with the Times in New York, but I’m sorry to say I quit. And I started drinking some. No. I started drinking a lot. And I did other things I’m not real proud of. I suppose I went a little mad, but I’d lost everything, see. I just didn’t know what to do. No one ever tells you what to do when these things happen.”
It’s a funny thing. I didn’t even know Eli had a middle name until I was writing WALK BY FAITH. In a fit of pique, Maggie barks, “Elijah Amos Smith!” It just came out and I don’t know where it came from.
Someone once asked me if the character was named Elijah for a reason. Yes, he is. I named him after a famous prophet. My reason for doing so was that as a character Eli points toward the future. He embodies the less formal, raw, more secular America that emerges in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. When the name “Amos” (another famous prophet) popped out, I thought, “Oh, well, why not? Amos was concerned with social justice in his time. And I’m sure Eli’s mother would have named him after two prophets in the hope that he would do great things.” He might very well be headed for great things. It’s just taking him a while.
While Eli adored his mother, he found his father to be “cold.” In WALK BY FAITH, Eli says his father was “strict. No, let’s make that judgmental.” He explains that his father felt journalism was a worthless pursuit and was grooming Eli to take over the dry goods store he owned. Realizing that he would be consigned to a fate of daily boredom, the frustrated fifteen-year-old ran away from home and made his way to New York, where he dreamed of being greater than Horace Greeley.
When I was writing WALK BY FAITH, Eli revealed more of his backstory. Despairing and seeking change after Martha’s death, he traveled west and ended up in the Western Territories (around present-day Minnesota). Eventually, he met up with a group of Santee Sioux, with whom he lived for four years.
By now Eli wanted to return to the life he knew and start a newspaper, so he returned east, settled in Ohio, did indeed start a paper. But things did not go as planned. As he tells Maggie in WALK BY FAITH:
“In Ohio, I tried to publish the truth about slavery and the need for abolition, but a mob burned my press down. Guess I was a little too blunt.”
Finally, in 1855, Eli makes his way to Blaineton, NJ. I’ll let him tell the rest of the story (from SEEING THE ELEPHANT):
“Maggie was the one who kind of saved my life. …Maggie had a little house on her property. Maybe it was used for servants once upon a time, I don’t know. But I liked the look of it and asked if she’d consider renting it to me so I could set up a print shop. She said yes.” He chuckled. “I didn’t pay her a penny for the first six months. But Maggie never said a word. She knew I was good for it. That’s the kind of woman she is.”
And that’s how this complex man found his way into the arms of a faithful Methodist woman.
Maggie and Eli face heartbreak, danger, threats, and nearly break up, but their love and respect for each other keep them together. In fact, they’re better together than apart. I like their chemistry I really do.
We’ll look at Emily and Nate Johnson next time.