Image: 19th century women caring for an ill patient. Proposed cover image for A Balm in Gilead, purchased from i.stock.com.
I thought I’d be finished with A Balm in Gilead by now, but I’m still polishing it. I haven’t quite reached the stage where I’m so sick of the story that I want to throw it out a window. Once I hit that point, though, I’ll send it to my beta readers. And I’ll be sure to send it to them via email or snail mail, and not by heaving it out a window.
Part of the difficulty working in today’s world of COVID is that I work at home. Our church stopped in-person meetings a year ago. We meet for weekly worship on Zoom. We hold meetings, study groups, and other groups like confirmation on Zoom, as well. We’re a Zoom-y congregation. We love to schmooze.
Although I try to keep my hours for church work limited to the morning, and try to reserve the afternoon or evening for writing, I have found that it’s not as easy as it sounds. For instance, some meetings and groups are in the evening. Some things, such as posting information about worship or writing the newsletter, show up on my so-called days off.
Long story short, dealing with our new, rather fluid work style sometimes pushes writing to the side.
However, I am making progress. And today I’d like to tell you a bit about what’s going on in the new book.
First of all, as I’ve said before, the idea to write about an epidemic was part of a storyline that had emerged long before COVID decided to show up. And yet, telling the story of a typhoid fever epidemic in Blaineton in late August of 1864 while living in the pandemic of 2020-21 was a weirdly-placed coincidence.
In the new story, Blaineton is rebuilding or refurbishing homes destroyed in the Great Fire of 1 August 1864. Then an epidemic shows up. Isn’t that the way things work? We would prefer to have a rest after a traumatic experience, but sometimes what we expect and what actually happens are not the same.
The storyline regarding typhoid fever primarily focuses on the doctors as they attempt to discern what has caused the outbreak. Where did it come from? Is anyone or anything to blame? How will they care the patients? There is no a cure, so they must resort to palliative methods. How will they keep typhoid fever from spreading?
The other main storyline involves Maggie's growing political leadership in the town. She registers to run for Town Council, since nothing in the town’s founding documents says whether one must be male in order to run for office, although it does spell out that only males may vote. Maggie also gets her feet wet making a couple of speeches. In addition, she takes responsibility for reporting to the Council on the rebuilding after the Great Fire as well as on the fight to address the epidemic. She even learns to stand up for herself, although she despises confrontation. The blessing of it all is that Maggie is surrounded by supportive friends and family who keep her on course.
As mentioned in my previous blog, Frankie and Patrick will get married in this book. With the Civil War starting to wind down, Mower General Hospital is receiving fewer injured soldiers – and so, toward the end of the book, Patrick is mustered out of the army. That means he and Frankie are now free to go ahead with a new life.
As for Lydia… well… she reveals that she is expecting. Apparently that quick honeymoon with husband Capt. Philip Frost created more than good memories for the newlyweds. How Lydia balances her calling as a doctor with being a wife and a mother will be an ongoing challenge for her. The good news is that Maggie, her mother and advisor, has been juggling multiple callings most of her life.
Finally, Carson moves out of Greybeal House. Don’t worry, he’s just taking up residence on Main Street in Blaineton, where he is opening a photography gallery. However, Shelby Garrison, a traveling musician, moves into Greybeal House. Will Shelby become a new guy-pal for Eli? Let’s be honest. No one can replace Carson for Eli, just as no one can replace Nate Johnson’s friendship. So, this may not be exchanging one friend for another, but more a case of Eli expanding his buddy group.
Here’s a taste of the book, taken from the moment when the town’s doctors (Lydia and Dr. Lightner) and Capt. Philip Frost (on a short leave from Mower Hospital) realize that Norton Mill has a problem:
Western New Jersey Hospital
Philip was accompanying Lydia on her rounds as she saw people who had sustained injuries, checked on a few who were recovering from surgery, and visited a couple of new mothers whose deliveries had been complicated.
They had just stepped into the hallway when they saw Dr. Lightner entering the wing.
“Fred!” Lydia called. “How did the examinations go?”
He strode over and said in a quiet voice, “Please come with me.”
Lydia and Philip followed him into his office. Lightner shut the door behind them and then turned. “It’s typhoid fever.”
Lydia took a breath. “Are you sure?”
“Yes. And it’s ten people not five. Two of the men even have the rose spots. All are experiencing diarrhea, fever, body aches, no appetite, and exhaustion to one degree or the other.”
Lydia asked, “What do you think brought it on? Impure water?”
Lightner shook his head. “I don’t know. But it doesn’t take a genius to see that the dormitories are filthy, in bad repair, and odorous. In fact, the conditions are positively miasmatic.”
Phil frowned. “So, do you suspect miasma rather than polluted water?”
“I honestly don’t know,” was Lightner’s reply. “Right now, we know comparatively little about the causes of typhoid fever. It could be miasmic, yes, but Dr. William Budd’s article a few years back clearly connected contaminated water supplies with typhoid fever.” 
Phil added, “I know that typhoid fever is rampant in the army camps. Saw it first-hand in them, as well as in the Washington hospital I was stationed in. My guess is that the disease there was likely caused by a combination of contaminated water and food. And yet, at times it seemed that it spread merely by one man touching another, as if it could pass from hand to hand. Of course, camps are scarcely places of great cleanliness. As for the hospital… well, it was overcrowded.”
Lightner paused a moment to consider Phil’s observation. Then he said, “All right, here’s what we’ll do. Let’s check the water supply at the mill first. We’ll need to know if the well is located near the necessaries. If they seem to be where the contamination is coming from, then they must be moved to another, safer location. Also, if the well's water supply comes from the river, then we need to ascertain what factories or businesses are throwing their refuse into it.”
“We'll need to discover what that refuse is, too,” Lydia added. “And it all needs to be done immediately. In addition, we must separate the ill workers from the healthy ones, and living quarters should be scoured top to bottom, sheets and blankets washed, and more.”
Will they be able to do all that? What roadblocks will they hit? How will they get extra help if things go downhill? What if the outbreak in the Mill spreads to the town?
We'll find out.
Until next blog: stay well, stay strong, and have hope.
Janet R. Stafford
 A rose-colored rash.
 Budd was an English physician, who in 1859 published an article in the Lancet describing his experiences with a typhoid fever outbreak and suggesting that it was caused by polluted water and person-to-person transmission.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder