CC0 image from Pixabay
Last week, I wrote two blogs about reading materials for evangelical Protestant children in the 1800s. I know the stories – or perhaps more correctly the values found in these stories – influenced Maggie and her daughters. However, I suspect they absorbed the values more from what the adults around them said and did, than from reading material.
In my own career, as someone who works with families in a congregation, I have come to believe that parents and other significant adults are the ones who truly teach values to children. Those are the people with whom children live and/or see the most. Children watch, absorb, and then practice what they see from the adults around them.
Walk by Faith contains one example of how Maggie ignored the “edifying fare” preferred by her childhood governess. Maggie comes from a wealthy family, experienced the usual trappings of a child in such circumstances, and ended up on the other end of the socio-economic scale because she dared to elope with the son of her father’s business competitor. However, during her early life, Maggie’s family was part of the Methodist Episcopal Church and had embraced some basic Christian tenets, including financial generosity toward the poor and needy and giving of one’s self. Both of these things are rooted in the concept that God loves all people and bestows grace to all (grace being God’s love and favor). Therefore, Maggie learned from her family that to be good followers of Jesus mean being generous and caring. The slip up came when her father and brother turned their backs on her for committing the apparently unforgivable sin of marrying the wrong man.
As for edifying reading, we learn of Maggie’s childhood (and adult) preferences in this excerpt from Walk by Faith:
Maggie’s Reading Preferences When Young
As a child, Maggie had loved to peruse the titles and then choose one that struck her fancy. Her favorites had been James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking series, Walter Scott’s adventures, and Jane Austen’s novels. However, when caught reading such material – which happened frequently – her pious governess would cluck her tongue disapprovingly, remove the offending book from Maggie’s hands, and replace it with more edifying fare, such as John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, or even a tome of Jonathan Edwards’ sermons.
Obviously, Bunyon, Milton, and Edwards were not reading for a child with a lively imagination. (However, I have read Johnathon Edward’s sermons as a graduate student and I’m here to tell you that the only one like “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is… well… “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” The rest of his sermons are not fire and brimstone.)
As for how Maggie taught her own children about faith and values, she did it through personal example, as well as praising the girls when they did something generous and kind and reminding them when they were being selfish and petulant. In this scene from The Dundee Cake, Maggie is getting Lydia (10) and Frankie (6) ready for bed. They discuss a problem Emily Johnson has, come up with a way to be kind to her, and then Maggie settles them down by reading a Bible story and praying with her daughters.
The Girls Have a Suggestion
“Today Mrs. Johnson told me something very sad.”
“What is it, Mama?” Hair braided for the night and dressed in her nightgown, Lydia was sitting on the other side of the bed.
“She told me that she and Mr. Johnson were going to have a baby, but it came too early and died.”
Lydia frowned. “Why does that happen, Mama?”
“I don’t know, Liddy.”
Her eldest was quiet for a moment. Then she blurted, “I wish all babies could live, Mama, and their mothers, too. It’s not right!”
“I agree.” Maggie sighed. “This happened to Mrs. Johnson about three months ago and she is still very sad.”
“But it’s almost Christmas,” Frankie said. “How can anyone be sad at Christmastime?”
The question nearly broke her mother’s heart. How? Tragedy and grief were no respecters of human celebrations. Maggie began to braid her daughter’s hair. “Sometimes people are sad at Christmas, Frankie, even though it is a happy season. Sad things happen, and they can’t see the joy for their sadness. Grieving takes time.”
“Then maybe we should do something kind for Mr. and Mrs. Johnson,” Lydia suggested. “Maybe it would cheer them up a little.”
“Why, that is an excellent idea!” Maggie took the piece of rag sitting beside her and tied it to the end of Frankie’s braid. “What do you think we should do?”
Frankie bit her lip in thought. “We could bake something.”
“Molasses cookies,” Lydia exclaimed.
“And gingerbread! Everybody loves gingerbread!”
“Wonderful. I’ll see what we have in our stores and tomorrow we’ll make their gift.” Maggie scooted back on the mattress and lay back on the pillows. She opened her arms. “Come here, my kind-hearted darlings! I love you both so very much.” They snuggled with her and she held them tight. “I’m proud of you for thinking of others. And your father would be proud of you, too.”
After a moment, Frankie asked, “Are you still sad about Papa and Gideon, Mama?”
“Yes, I am,” Maggie said quietly.
“And Aunt Letty?”
“Yes. I’m sad about her, too.”
Lydia sat up at looked down on her mother. “I didn’t know that, Mama. Are you sad all the time?”
“No, not all the time. I find joy every time I see your faces. However, I don’t want you two to worry. I am strong, and I’ll be just fine. Now why don’t I read a story from the Bible? Then we’ll have our prayers and put out the lamps.”
Judging by how the girls grow up and behave in the Saint Maggie series, and how Maggie herself behaves, my opinion is that pious and earnest writings of authors such as Sarah Maria Fry may have had an impact on their young minds. However, it is highly likely that the far greater impact came from the parents and other adults with whom they associated while growing up.
In addition, my experience as “Director of Christian Education” at six churches had formed my understanding – which obviously has found its way into my stories. Familial and other significant adults have a tremendous influence on how children absorb values.
Also, if it sounds kind of weird that I don't know things about my characters, it is because they tend to reveal things in their own good time. As an author, I find that I learn things about them the more I write about them. When I start, I only have an outline of what a character is like and then we start on a journey. As situations arise, they will respond one way or another. It's a very weird process. And yet I've heard other authors say about the same thing with regard to character development. So there you are.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder