I knew I wanted to write something about early to mid-1800s mental hospitals and the Moral Treatment Method. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, though. Was someone going to need hospitalization? I toyed with the idea of Maggie having issues – but was told by staunch fans, “don’t go there. Not Maggie.” I thought about Eli. He was having nightmares even at the end of Walk by Faith and throughout A Time to Heal. He certainly hadn’t healed, but I was sure that story about him being in a hospital (or a madhouse, as he would put it) would work.
Maggie, Eli, and family were going to return to New Jersey, that much I knew. They would be moving into Greybeal House, a mansion of sorts on a large parcel of land that once belonged to the Greybeal family, first European arrivals in the Blaineton area.
I also knew that Tryphena Moore, Maggie’s former nemesis turned supporter, had tried to start a newspaper once Eli’s Gazette had been burned. The Blaineton Register simply could not make a go of it, and Tryphena knew why: it lacked a sharp and dedicated, if not slightly sketchy, editor-in-chief, namely Elijah A. Smith. So, she offered him a job and the two become an unlikely team.
What if while the boarding house family was away for nearly a year in Gettysburg, a mental hospital was built north of the town, scenically set on a hill overlooking the Delaware River? Add a compassionate superintendent dedicated to the more humane Moral Treatment Method (Dr. Winston Stanley) and I had a new setting.
Realizing that the Gilded Age (the era of industrialists and a widening gap between the rich and the rest) had to have its roots somewhere, I also created an industrialist by the name of Josiah Norton, who has renovated an old mill south of Blaineton and now runs a woolen mill and a uniform factory. He is handsome, aloof, impressed with himself and his wealth, and sees his employees as cogs in a wheel rather than fellow human beings. Presto! Eli now has an adversary.
Add to the mix two Irish maids, an aspiring young black reporter, and assorted hospital patients and attendants, and I had a cast.
The novel’s name, Seeing the Elephant, comes from an old expression that means “now I’ve seen it all” or “now I’ve seen everything.” Here’s some background on the expression:
In the middle of the 19th century, the popular phrase "I have seen the elephant" referred to overcoming the adversities and hardships in one's life. A fable revolved around a farmer who heard that the circus was coming to town. He had never seen an elephant, and headed to town with his produce to see the elephant. On the road, he encountered the elephant. Unfortunately, the farmer's horse had never seen an elephant, either. The horse spooked, upset the cart, and ran off, destroying the farmer's produce. Even so, the farmer declared "I don't care, for I have seen the elephant."
Oakland Museum of California. “Gold Fever: Elephant.” http://explore.museumca.org/goldrush/fever11.html
During the Civil War, the expression, “I’ve seen the elephant” was used by soldiers. The “elephant” represented combat, battle, and/or being under fire.
As Seeing the Elephant begins, my Civil War-era characters have seen the elephant, indeed. While they look forward to a new life in their old town, they are still haunted by what had happened to them in 1863. But in 1864 things are starting to look up for everyone.
Frankie, Maggie’s youngest daughter by John Blaine, is 17 years old and itching to get out in the world and make her mark. When the town’s young pastor, Rev. George Lowry, invites her to help him minister to the women’s section at the new Western New Jersey Hospital for the Insane, Frankie jumps at the chance (although her mother and stepfather are less enthused). Eventually, Dr. Stanley offers Frankie a full-time, paying job as an attendant at the hospital. Frankie dives into her work and befriends the women in the Convalescent Ward (those patients who are nearly ready to go home).
Nate Johnson (Emily’s husband) restarts his carpentry business and is soon invited by Maggie’s brother, Samuel, owner of the Blaineton Carriage Manufactory, to make wheels for the army wagons they are making. Why? Because Nate, a black man, is the best wheelwright in the county and Samuel wants only the best. But, because having Nate on site with white workers had been so controversial back in 1863, Samuel suggests that Nate does the work in his shop on the Greybeal property and that someone from the factory will pick them up.
Eli, meanwhile, is put in charge of hiring his staff. He chooses Chester Carson as his senior reporter and assistant editor. Then he hires two troublesome ragamuffins, Andy Randall and Danny Coopernall. They work as paperboys, an apprentice typesetter, an apprentice rotary press operator, and a receptionist. James “Grandpa” O’Reilly becomes his subscriptions manager and typesetter. Josef Larsen, a Norwegian immigrant, is kept on as rotary press operator. Finally, Eli hires Edward Caldwell, a young, eager, black man with a history as a reporter for several black newspapers.
Finally, Maggie and Emily realize that they will have their hands full trying to maintain Greybeal House. Maggie’s sister-in-law, Abigail, suggests that they hire two young maid-in-training who will serve on a voluntary basis until money starts coming in from the Register and Nate’s carpentry shop. Abigail knows of a newly-arrived family from Ireland who have two teenage girls who could use the work.
And off we go. Eli’s nose for news and suspicion of Josiah’ Norton’s business practices cause tension between the two. Maggie worries about Frankie over at the hospital and Lydia, who has stayed behind to work in a new hospital for children and women in Gettysburg. So, she turns to mothering and mentoring the Brennan sisters, the new maids. Meanwhile, Emily takes a job baking for Miss Amelia’s Tea Shop and is expecting a baby. And Nate is happily turns out furniture and wheels.
But things do not go as smoothly as they had hoped. (Come on, it’s a Saint Maggie novel, things eventually go spinning out of control.)
Eli’s recurring nightmare disturbs him to the point that he begins to wonder about his sanity, especially after touring the Hospital for the Insane and finding men there with symptoms like his.
And then Dr. Stanley is removed as superintendent of the hospital and replaced by a less caring, harder regime that puts Frankie and the other attendants to the test and causes unrest among the patients.
Will Eli and his staff uncover what is going on at the hospital? Will Frankie be able to cope with the changes? Where does Josiah Norton fit into it all?
Get the novel at the Squeaking Pips Store for $7.99 (tax included, shipping is free, and I’ll sign it).
You also may find Seeing the Elephant at Amazon, Lulu , and other distributors. Kindle has the book for $1.99.
Tomorrow, I’ll briefly go over the short stories and novella.