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Allow me to be honest, times are just flat out tough for Maggie, Eli, and their friends. They live in 1860s USA, an era during which life presented plenty of challenges even in the best of times.
Come to think of it, things have not changed all that much, have they? The big issues present in the newly born United States of the 1770s came to a head in the 1860s and continue to beset us today. Sometimes I feel as if we’re a big dysfunctional family. We will not acknowledge that 1) we have serious problems, and 2) we need to work together to make our relationships better. I suspect and fear that until we do, nothing is going to change.
The story in A Good Community kicks off when Mary and Addie Brooks, two homeless, Black teenagers, join the family at Greybeal House and are informally adopted by Nate and Emily. However, when Maggie and Emily attempt to enroll the girls in Blaineton’s school, they are told the school is only for white children. While there once had been a school for children of color on Water Street, this now has been officially closed. Why? So many people in the Black community had moved away at the start of the war that the town decided it was not cost effective to maintain a separate school. At the same time, they decided that children of color would not be admitted to the main school.
Yes, that sort of nonsense did happen. The truth is that segregated schools still exist in New Jersey. These days it is due mainly to where people live. And, since we have local school districts rather than school systems organized via county or even by the state, this has an impact on the quality of the education students in each district receive. Clearly, my state needs to address the situation better, but sadly it’s also one that is easy to ignore. Changing things, making things more equitable, means more expense. And this of course brings up arguments about cost effectiveness. Thus, poorer school districts, which have large Black populations, still struggle to provide their children with a good education.
Back to the story. Faced with the problem of how to educate the Brooks sisters, Emily, Maggie, and friends brainstorm and decide to start a new school, called the Greybeal Academy of Practical Studies. Things look promising at first – until the Irish immigrant Brennan family asks to enroll their children in the school, too. The issue? Maggie had assured industrialist Josiah Norton, who now sits on the town’s School Board, that the school is solely for children of color. However, the Brennan children live far enough from the town that they must board somewhere if they are to get an education. Knowing that the children would not be able to find rooms in the town, the Academy’s leadership decides to move ahead. They admit the Brennan children and provide them with room and board.
Long story short, all this blows up and eventually becomes deadly. A fire allegedly is started up on Water Street, but quickly spreads into Blaineton proper. The town’s population now must work together to fight the fire. NOTE: This was not an easy thing to do! The town may have had a fire brigade with a pump wagon, but firefighting techniques in general were limited to throwing buckets of water to stop a fire’s spread. Also, house construction of the era easily allowed houses to get swallowed by flames.
After the conflagration has been extinguished, the town’s people now must undertake a new task. They need to face the issues that led to the fire. At this point, Maggie suddenly finds herself thrust into the public as she attempts to lead the town’s people through the process of constructive healing. And this just might be a call for her to enter public service.
Since I’m still working on A Balm in Gilead, I need a little extra time think through a summary of the story. It is there (obviously, I wrote a whole book) but as I work on the first revision, I find myself rearranging some of the scenes – and maybe doing a little cutting, as well. I just need a bit of time to think things through so I can write a summary next week and conclude our walk through the “Maggie-verse.”
Stay well, friends. Take care. Be kind. Be patient. And VOTE!
Janet R. Stafford
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder