Like most authors, bits of the people I know have found their way into the characters in my books. Some of them even have bits of me them. Bits? Who am I kidding? I have an alter ego, a character closest to who I am in real life, and she is Lins Mitchell the assistant pastor in HEART SOUL & ROCK ‘N’ ROLL.
But recently I realized that I also have an “altar ego,” which I define as someone who I aspire to be. That character is Maggie Beatty Blaine Smith, the heroine of the Saint Maggie series. And she is the subject of this week’s blog. Let’s start with her backstory.
Maggie was born in 1821 and grew up in a well-to-do household. Her father, Othniel owned a carriage works, started by his father in the early 1800s. The business prospered and so Maggie and her brother, Samuel, grew up with maids and a butler, and a governess.
However, Maggie was not content to learn “female accomplishments,” like playing the piano and singing. She preferred reading adventure fiction like the Leatherstocking series and Jane Austen’s novels to the more “edifying” material such as Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which her governess foisted upon her. She also favored playing rough-and-tumble games with the boys over sitting in the parlor and sewing samplers. In short, Maggie was very much like her daughter Frankie.
Her independent spirit led her to elope with John Blaine because their families were business rivals. When they returned home, they discovered that both families had disowned them. Essentially homeless, the newlyweds were given a place to stay when John’s aunt, Letty Blaine invited them into her home, located on Second Street and facing the square.
John and Maggie had three children: Lydia, Frankie, and a son, Gideon. Sadly, a rheumatic fever epidemic in 1850 took John and Gideon. A few years later, Letty died, and Maggie was left to run the boarding house the two had started all on her own. But Maggie grit her teeth and pushed on, despite boarders who didn’t always pay the rent, and despite public scorn because… well, boarding houses (read my previous post).
When Maggie’s brother Samuel inherited the family business, he then went on to take over the Blaine family’s carriage works. And at every opportunity, Samuel reminded Maggie that she had made her own bed, had fallen to a lowly estate and was a disgrace to the proud name of Beatty.
Saint Maggie then begins with a rather broken heroine searching for respect and solace. The one thing that holds Maggie up throughout the series is her faith. She is a staunch Methodist who believes that one should love God and love one’s neighbor. Her remaining independence emerges in the way she defines “neighbor.” That definition is built around Saint Paul’s statement: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, King James Version – I’m using the KJV out of deference to Maggie).
To the town’s horror, she invites a broken-down writer, an indigent Irish immigrant, a struggling young lawyer, and an undertaker’s apprentice into her home. And while it would not be unusual in 1800s New Jersey for a white woman to hire a black woman as a cook, it would be unusual for them to become close friends and for the said cook and her husband Nate to live on the second floor of the boarding house’s “new wing.” But that is precisely what happens after Maggie hires Emily Johnson.
The trust between Maggie and the Johnsons moves the couple to invite her to become part of their Underground Railroad stop. And Maggie eagerly joins the act of civil disobedience, along with Eli Smith, the free-thinking, ex-Quaker who owns and prints the Gazette, a penny-weekly newspaper. He is another stray Maggie has adopted and rents her outbuilding, from which he runs his business and in which he lives. And it is with this unlikely, pudgy hero that Maggie falls in love for the second time.
I admire Maggie’s strength, touch of rebelliousness, independent mind, and firm faith in the power of love, kindness, and justice.
So, by now you must be asking, “Does this woman have any faults?” And my answer is, “yes, don’t be silly.” First, she is rather naïve. She wants to believe the best of everybody and gets let down, most notably by the Rev. Jeremiah Madison. I think Maggie really doesn’t understand how the world around her works. She seems to believe everyone is capable of being good and, if not, then capable of changing for the better.
She sometimes falls victim to stereotypes. Until she meets Confederate soldiers in WALK BY FAITH, Maggie fearfully expects them to be a pack of ravaging monsters (she is a milder version of Frankie in this regard). And while Eli seems to be the one raising concerns in SEEING THE ELEPHANT about Frankie working at the Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane, Maggie is fine with the idea, until she realizes that violent patients are also housed in the hospital (I told you she was naïve).
As a mother, Maggie struggles with letting go as her daughters become young women. She has particular trouble with Frankie who challenges her in SEEING THE ELEPHANT: “Mama! If you are going to worry every time I set foot outside our door–” To which, Maggie cuts her off with, “I worry because I never know what you are going to get into.” Of course, Maggie’s concern over Frankie may stem from the fact that this daughter is essentially so much like her.
Finally, Maggie is reticent about having her needs met, she tends to take care of everyone but herself, which is a very nineteenth-century thing. However, my heroine seems to be turning the corner in the new book I’m writing when she says to Eli: “I’m trying to help you understand something. Emily, Abigail, and I shall start a school. I’m not asking your permission. But I want you to be informed about my interests and activities.”
I really love Maggie. I admire her. I wish I were more like her. And I love the fact that – almost without my conscious effort – the series’ namesake appears to be growing and branching out.