Image from http://clipart-library.com/
I’ve said this again and again: the issues of the 1860s still echo in the USA today. And I’ll say again that when I began research for a novel about an epidemic striking Blaineton, New Jersey, I had no idea that the world would soon be fighting the COVID-19 epidemic. Even though typhoid fever is quite different from COVID-19, the common denominator is the “what is it, how to do we help the ill, and how do we treat it” element.
For those living in the USA’s Civil War era knowledge was limited. That period is located just before theories about germs and the “discovery” of bacteria become acknowledged and widely accepted, something that seems to have taken until the end of that century. A Balm in Gilead therefore focuses partly on how the doctors, with limited knowledge, struggle to uncover the cause of the epidemic and how to stop its spread.
As for us in the 21st century, we knew COVID-19 was a coronavirus – but, yikes! It was nothing like the other coronaviruses. Thank goodness – and science – that vaccines were developed relatively quickly. The challenge now is to get enough people vaccinated to significantly slow the spread down, and to continue caring for those who have become sick. (Thank you doctors, nurses, and all hospital workers!)
I also realize that the feisty, if not fractious populace of Blaineton tends to mirror the population of the USA of my own time. Racism, political strife, social and economic stress, and a host of other things that keep us apart today were active then. Since I have served in ministry for 29 years, I (and by proxy Maggie) believe in some basic life-laws. One is the Greatest Commandment from Jesus (which actually is two commandments in one): “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31). We also embrace the Apostle Paul’s assertion that, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) In short, and I know this sounds harsh, one simply cannot claim to follow Jesus if one refuses see that we are all children together and continues to sort people into “worthy” and “unworthy” categories.
All of that means is that the calling to love others even extends to those whom we dislike. As we know, Maggie dislikes Josiah Norton’s behavior and attitudes, but in Gilead, she does not hesitate to visit him when he takes ill. Thus, I fear that she is better at loving others than I ever will be… although perhaps writing her will help me become better at embodying those beliefs in my own actions.
All of that said, once Maggie makes the decision to run for government, she has this to say on her first “stump speech”:
“What I am trying to convey is that our town has suffered two great cataclysms: a fire and a typhoid fever epidemic, and they occurred one right after the other. It was a great shock. But we worked together and in that working together, we were able to build and to heal and to help.
“So, I thank God for the good people of our town and for those outside it. I stand amazed at what people can do if they work together when faced with a serious problem. I pray now that our town may move forward. I would hope that, should I be elected to the Council, we might engage our town strive to provide help for those in need and to those who are ill, and to engage in activities that bring us together in our amusements, daily labor, and projects in order to secure a strong, secure, and peaceful future for Blaineton. If we do that, then when the next difficulty besets us – and believe me, it is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ – we will remember who we are and why we are here and that united we can do anything.”
My final thought for this blog: Remember who you are and why we are all here together. And remember that united we can do anything.
Stay well. Be kind. Love others.
Janet R. Stafford
I know I have been MIA (Missing in Action). Like everyone else, I have been balancing life under COVID and worrying about our nation. After Christmas, I just needed some time off, so I focused on the book and the work I do for First United Methodist Church. Blogging needed to take a back seat for a bit.
But now I’m back with good news. The new Saint Maggie book, A Balm in Gilead, is getting close to the beta reader stage, which means it is that much closer to actual publication.
For the next few blogs, I’ll be writing about the two main plots in the book, as well as changes for some of our friends, the introduction of a couple of new characters, and the direction the series might be taking. Spoiler alert! There's a spin off in the making.
First, let’s take look at what’s up with Maggie in this book. You may notice from the blog’s image that she seems to be doing some heavy pondering.
When we left off in A Good Community, she was presented with the idea of running for Town Council. Here’s where Maggie stands when A Balm in Gilead kicks off:
The night after the fire, I was asked to address the citizens of our town. The people there only became ready to hear my message by the grace of God and by a lovely, supportive speech by Rosa Hamilton, a young woman of color who resides with us. Rosa told them the story of how she came to live with us and attested to my character in a genuine and convincing manner.
As for me, I presented a simple idea: we are called to help everyone affected by the fire, regardless of color. Whether it was God reaching out through Rosa’s words or through my own that convinced them, I do not know. What I do know is this: since that evening, many of our town folks have pitched in to help rebuild that homes that had been burned by the fire.
A completely unanticipated result of my speech was that I have been encouraged to take on a larger role in Blaineton. Several people, my brother and sister-in-law among them, are encouraging me to run for Town Council.
The very idea makes me laugh. Can you imagine such a thing, Journal? A woman running for Town Council? It heretofore has been unheard of. And this causes me to hesitate. Should I “throw my hat in the ring,” as they say, or decline?
You see, I simply do not know if it is the right thing now – both for the town and for me. Simply put, I am busy. We have many people currently living in our house, which requires a great deal of extra work. For another, running for the Council does not feel like “me.”
Do not misunderstand. I have no doubt that a woman should and at some time will run for political office – sooner rather than later, I hope – but I must ask myself, “Where is my heart?”
In other words, she doesn’t know whether she will do it or not. Maggie dislikes being in the public eye, mainly because she has taken such heat for the way she ran the old boarding house and the way that she and the people at Greybeal House now live their lives. Maggie is open-hearted and kind – so basically anyone can show up at her door and get invited in. Most people in Blaineton, however, are under the impression that she has absolutely no social filtering skills. Maybe not. But she is full of love skills.
As the story progresses, Maggie becomes more adept at putting herself out there, as well as standing her ground when challenged. A woman running for office is a novelty in 1864. The state of New Jersey does not permit white women to vote (and let us not forget that it does not permit Black men and women to vote either). That means Maggie's constituents are severely curtailed. She is more likely to win votes from women and people of color than from white men. So, running is probably an exercise in futility.
And yet the Blaineton town constitution contains an intriguing little omission. It does not specify exactly who may run for office, most likely presuming that only white males would do such a thing. That means Maggie has an opportunity to break the gender barrier. But will anyone listen to her? Should she be elected, would the men on the Council discount her input? Would she even be any good in a new role?
So, yep. Maggie has a lot of questions to ponder and in this book goes on a personal journey, even as the entire town embarks on a frightening journey of its own.
More about that frightening journey thing next week.
Meanwhile, practice love, be kind, be smart, and stay well.
Janet R. Stafford
Image from http://clipart-library.com/clipart/1772559.htm
The image above is a little bit 19th century, but Greybeal House's kitchen/sitting area would not have had that picture window. Still, has a a nice cozy vibe for the story you're about to read.
This story originally was the ending of “The Christmas Eve Visitor,” but I realized the real ending occurred earlier, so I cut the part out. However, I really liked the piece and knew I would do something with it. Looks like now is the time.
Setting: The Smiths and the remainder of the old boarding house family are returning to Blaineton, after a long, difficult sojourn in Pennsylvania. The events of 1863, related to the Civil War, had disrupted their lives completely. But good news arrived when Miss Tryphena Moore sent a letter saying that she wanted Eli to become the editor-in-chief of her newspaper, The Blaineton Register. They could go home at last!
But their joy was interrupted on Christmas Eve when the three youngest children contracted a fever and cough. They also were surprised when a strange little guest, a peddler by the name of Ira Strauss showed up at their door. The next morning, the Smiths and the Johnsons were overjoyed and a bit bewildered to find that all the children had recovered from their illness. Moreover, Ira Strauss seemed to have disappeared without a trace.
A few days later on December 28th, everyone returned to New Jersey and to a new home, a large, rather run-down mansion by the name of Greybeal House.
The new short-short story begins later the evening of the 28th, when Maggie realizes that something important is missing.
You’re welcome to download the story free as a PDF. It's my small gift of thanks. You'll find the PDF download at the very bottom of this blog.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays!
Janet R. Stafford
My book series currently has two Christmas short stories. One of the things I wanted to do was give them a nineteenth century feel, since… well, since they’re set in the nineteenth century.
What I am trying to say is I wanted a kind of old-fashioned, traditional feel to the stories. You know what that’s like if you’ve read O. Henry’s early twentieth century story “The Gift of the Magi,” read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” or seen the numerous movies that pay homage to it, or enjoyed the Christmas scenes in Alcott’s Little Women or liked its many iterations on screen.
So, what exactly is that feeling? Well, part if it is a sense of giving, especially to someone in need. But there is also a sense that Christmas is a time of sacrificial giving in that one goes the extra mile or gives up something for someone else. Dickens’ story also involves a supernatural element. Miser Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who teach him that there is more to life than money and that his wealth can and should be shared.
Not surprisingly, some of these elements come into play in my short stories.
“The Dundee Cake,” set in 1852, brings us into Maggie’s life at a time when she is still grieving the loss of her husband and young son from rheumatic fever, as well as grieving the more recent death of Aunt Letty, who had graciously opened her home to newlyweds Maggie and John Blaine after they had been disowned by both sets of parents. It was Aunty Letty who decided to turn her home into a boarding house in order to give Maggie a skill and an income. Now, Letty is dead, and Maggie is on her own. She tries her best to run a rooming house with four down-on-their-luck men, to pay newly hired cook Emily Johnson, and to raise two little girls. And there is an added complication: money is tight.
Maggie wonders if she will ever be able to make ends meet, let alone provide small gifts for her daughters and a Christmas dinner for her borders and family. A smaller, yet still depressing worry is that Maggie doubts she will be able to afford the ingredients for a Dundee cake, a Christmas treat made by her Scottish ancestors.
But when her cook Emily and husband Nate suffer a disaster, it changes Maggie’s priorities.
In my opinion, “The Dundee Cake” borrows from the tradition of sacrificial giving found in nineteenth century and early twentieth century Christmas stories.
NOTE: There is a recipe for a Dundee cake in the back of the book. I had placed a warning there to "make at your own risk," because when the story had been published, I hadn’t tried to make the cake yet. Good news! Last year Dan and I made it for the first time, and it was delicious! No wonder Maggie loves it so. Dan wants it again this year. (His love of the cake comes from his memories of a “blond fruitcake” his mother used to make. A Dundee cake is about as close as we can get to that right now.) So, to anyone interested in trying the recipe, I say “go ahead.” You might even want to adapt it to your own tastes.
The other story, “The Christmas Eve Visitor” is set in 1863 and borrows from the Dickensian twist of other-worldly visitors. However, the visitor in my story is neither terrifying nor out to change the bad behavior of Maggie and her family. Such a thing would be a case of bad timing, as the Smith and Johnson families are having a difficult time of it. They have moved from Gettysburg to escape the aftermath of the July battle and now are sojourning in Pennsylvania just outside Middletown (known today as Biglerville).
Christmas 1863 is far from cheerful for them. First, the two families are struggling to make ends meet, something not unusual for them. But their anxiety and fear are focused on the youngest children, all of whom have come down with a fever and a cough. Back in the 1860s, a fever and a cough were serious things. They could kill you. And that can still happen, but in those days people had little in the way of analgesics and there was no such thing as antibiotics. So, Maggie, Eli, Emily, Nate, and Maggie’s daughters Lydia and Frankie work to keep their spirits up as they care for three ill little ones and pray that the symptoms will abate. Losing any of or all the children is a real fear.
There is a roaring snowstorm outside, which adds to the feeling of being closed in and trapped.
And then someone knocks on their door.
Outside Maggie finds a little peddler. Baffled at his appearance in the storm, but always hospitable, she invites him in, gives him a bowl of hot soup and some bread, and sits him down at the kitchen table, where she and Emily proceed to chat with him.
The man says his name is Ira Strauss. He is grateful for the meal and the warm place to rest. These things, he says, have been a mitzvah. But Ira is decidedly odd, if not mysterious. He seems to know things about the family that he has no way of knowing. What’s more, he gives each person in the household a gift strangely suited to them. Who is he? Where is he from? What does he want? You’ll need to read the story to learn find out. Maybe.
And so, to honor the holidays and the tradition of giving, both books will be free on Kindle starting December 22 and ending on December 26. Get one or both for yourself and maybe give them to a friend. (Can be done on Kindle? Hope so!)
Click on the links below from 12/22 thru 12/26 to get either or both.
The Dundee Cake
The Christmas Eve Visitor
This is my little way of thanking you all for hanging with me this year. Let’s hope that things get better in 2021.
Stay strong and hopeful, friends.
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder