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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
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder