Throughout the Saint Maggie series, Maggie Blaine Smith must stand up to her fears. However, in Seeing the Elephant, much of the story’s action involves her husband Eli and her daughter Frankie. But even though she is not the center of attention, Maggie’s ability to stand up to her fears is tested in the story.
One thing that is consistent throughout all four books is Maggie’s faith. When faced with a worrisome situation or a danger, she uses two faith practices to anchor her and help her find hope. The first is writing in her journal.
When Frankie gets a live-in position as an attendant at the new hospital north of Blaineton, Maggie worries. The hospital is an insane asylum and even though Frankie is working in the women’s “convalescent ward,” for women who are nearly ready to return to their homes, Maggie still worries. This is because the building also houses the “general ward” for people who still struggle with their illnesses, and a “violent ward” for those who are liable to hurt themselves and/or others.
After taking Frankie to the hospital and helping her unpack, Maggie returns home and records her feelings in her journal:
Oh, Journal! It was difficult enough for me to bid Lydia farewell, but how much greater it was to release Frankie! After all, Lydia has had experience of the world and has been married. But my dear Frances is still a child. At least she is so to me, no matter how adult she feels about it.
I know I should not worry. My Frances is resourceful and bright and has a deep faith that shines a light on her path. But, dearest Lord, please keep her from stumbling and grant her courage and wisdom and kindness of heart.
You'll note that Maggie employs her other faith practice at the very end of the entry: prayer.
She continues to pray when Eli’s nightmares, stemming from his experiences in the war, appear to be growing worse. Eli decides to seek help from Dr. Winston Stanley, the superintendent of the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane. He and Eli work out an arrangement where Eli will stay in one of the cottages behind the hospital, work on an article about the asylum, and receive treatment at the same time.
Naturally, Maggie is concerned. Today mental illness still carries a stigma; however, in 1860 it was much worse. What if the town discovers Eli has been a patient at the hospital? Will he be labeled a "loony" and have his opinions as an editor discredited? Also, Maggie doesn’t know what will happen to her husband in the course of treatment, how it might change him, and whether he will get better. She yearns to be near him to make sure he is safe. In short, Maggie has many questions and few answers. In the excerpt below we find her sitting in Blaineton Methodist Episcopal Church after Sunday worship.
The sanctuary was empty. All the parishioners had moved outside to greet Mr. Lowry. Maggie, though, remained behind. Still seated in her pew, she stared at the small table the church used as an altar. Her focus was on the little wooden cross sitting upon it. The simple icon had been made in the early 1800s when the congregation had no church building and met in parishioners’ homes.
Maggie bowed her head. Father, my husband wishes to go away once more. It is only a few miles, but we will be separated for weeks. I am afraid, and I don’t know why. Please ease my mind. Give me courage. Please.
Maggie prays first. She opens herself up to her God and asks for courage. Then, in the scene that follows, she opens up to Eli, first confronting him, and then realizing that it is necessary for him to go to the hospital and receive treatment. Finally she comes up with a solution that will help ease her fears. (By the way, Faith is their baby daughter and Eli is holding her in the scene.)
Eli said, “Don’t worry, Maggie. Please.”
She couldn’t stop herself. “You said you wouldn’t leave again.”
“Maggie!” He shifted Faith in his arms. “I’ll only be few miles away.”
“I know, but I won’t be able to speak with you, or see you, or know how you’re doing.” Tears suddenly wet her eyes. Seeking to control her emotions, Maggie stared at the ground. “I don’t want to go through that all over again.”
“Oh, sweetheart, if that’s the way you feel then…”
She sniffed, pulled herself together, and met his eyes. “No, I am being silly. Of course, you must go! I want you to stop having nightmares.”
Eli studied his wife’s face. “There’s no guarantee Dr. Stanley will be able to help me.”
“I should like you to try anyway. But why must you work on a story while you’re there?”
“Maggie, I’m a newspaperman. There’s a story in that hospital, something that may change the way its patients are treated. But if this is going to cause you to worry…”
She forced a smile. “Well, of course, I shall worry, Elijah, but…” She sought the right words. “It would help if Bob, Faith, and I could visit with you once or twice a week. I should worry less.”
And, yes, she does receive permission from Dr. Stanley to visit Eli twice a week for an hour or two each day. It's not as much as she would like, of course, but it is something. In addition she can bring their children, Bob and Faith, to visit with him, too.
Over the years of working with Maggie as a character, I realize she is able to handle most situation because she is rooted in prayer and reflection (writing in her journal). She stands up to her fears by praying for strength and clarity and by writing out her feelings, and sometimes by talking out her feelings, especially with Eli. Once she has done these things, she is able to take action and move through the issue toward a resolution.
I wish I could emulate Maggie in my own life. I am not a consistent journalist – I used to journal frequently years ago, but not so much now – and my prayer life probably has more in common with Eli’s than Maggie’s. However, I think in many ways that writing a character who approaches life through her faith practices has had an impact on me.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder