Ephraim was hooked. Education, fine minds, the good of all — this work had to be done. He offered to join the campaign to start the University of Dakota, for his Baptist circuits provided an ideal opportunity to build support. Mr Kettering gladly welcomed the respected, highly-educated Dr Epstein. The founding trustees were tough, intelligent men and Ephraim savoured working with them as equals conferring over petitions, deadlines and charter requirements. With a cause to fight for Ephraim became fully his old self. His dispirited determination ceased, his withdrawals to his desk were now charged with energy. Helena rejoiced in his zeal; at last her husband was the confident, enthusiastic man she had fallen in love with.
Finally, two years after the awful death of his little son, Ephraim regains purpose in life, though he still feels unable to practice medicine. In Chapter 31, Orion Rising, his engagement in the new cause of a university for the raw Dakota Territory is interrupted by the devastating Great Flood of 1881. By mid-April 400 miles of the Missouri River had been inundated and the worst destruction is in the 25 miles between Yankton, where Ephraim lives, and Vermillion — the town designated as home to the university. The whole settlement of Vermillion has been washed away. Lesser men would be fazed, but Ephraim?
Only one offer comes of Ephraim’s application to teach or preach: from Yankton, capital of Dakota Territory. Back to the wild West that was so wrong for him in Kansas, and with new worries. Only three years earlier Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse slaughtered General Custer and his troops at Little Bighorn. Though the Sioux Lakota tribes have now been driven back there are the realities of the territory’s distances and its climate: droughts, bitter winters, searing summers, tornadoes, locusts, prairie fires.
Unable to practice medicine because he still blames himself for his child’s death, Ephraim accepts with grim determination. Yankton is the base for a new frontier, a port for steamboats on the Missouri river. In 1879 Ephraim, the pregnant Helena and two-year-old Frieda arrive by train. Homesteaders live in sod huts, immigrants and prospectors flood in. However, life in the town is far from makeshift. Yankton has schools, brickworks, goods stores, breweries, hotels, banks, a court house, a daily newspaper and ten churches. Ephraim’s post: pastor of the Baptist church, the longest established Protestant congregation in the capital.
In A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Chapter 30) fifty-year-old Ephraim buckles down to the compromises of maturity. His long rides over the prairie on horseback impose solitude and time to solve a Hebrew puzzle that challenges Bible scholarship. Embers stir and burst into firey zeal in the next chapter.
‘What are you trying to prove, Ephraim?’ Jacob took another bite of his fishcake.
‘That Truth is the Way.’
‘That will carry you through,’ the old uncle airily dismissed the subject. ‘How is little Frieda? And the pretty Mrs Epstein.’
Ephraim told him about the baby due in autumn, and then plunged into his turmoil. ‘I can’t be a physician. But I cannot stay on as a silenced teacher.’
‘The Jews don’t like you because of your Jesus. And the Christians don’t like you because of your truth.’ Jacob laughed gently. ‘Do you ever think of keeping quiet?’
But we know by now that Ephraim cannot keep from acting on his truths. In Chapter 29, Professor Epstein, medical practice is impossible for the still-grieving physician. He has lasted one successful year as a teacher of Hebrew and scripture at Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio. Because of his outspokenness he now must invent himself once again… but as what, where?
When fact is perfect for fiction… this highly romantic episode was no more than family lore when I began writing the novel of Dr Epstein’s life. Then California cousin CB sent me wonderful evidence of truth.
‘As to the wooing there is a bit of romance. In an album at the house of some relatives in St. Petersburg, the young merchant saw a photograph of Miss Sarah. In a twinkling of an eye he fell in love, and expressed an ardent with to see the fair original. Correspondence followed… with the result above stated.’ The New York Times December 24, 1874.
In Chapter 26, Perjured, determined daughter Sadie defeats her father. Ephraim overrides his resistance to her marriage — but at what cost?
Feisty writing women have a date with Ephraim… I’ll be reading from The Extraordinary Dr Epstein, a chapter included in the anthology Notes on a Page launched Saturday 3 December, 2 – 4 pm at Richmond Library in west London. He’s alongside short stories, memoir, lyrics, poetry… tea & cake too!
Notes on a Page is published collaboratively by Palewell Press and Dark Mourne Press http://www.palewellpress.co.uk/Palewell-Publications.html http://www.darkmournepress.com/
For many men the birth of a son is a great thing, and for Ephraim perhaps especially so when William was born to Helena in 1874. He knew what it was to be the first born son of his parents, the longed for male. This joy in a son was bred in his bones and could not be denied. Equally undeniable was consideration of circumcision. He himself was circumcised, of course, by a mohel at the bris at eight days of age, as all Jewish boys were. Ephraim’s personal life, his profession and his Jewish-Christian faith constellated in a crisis.
In Chapter 25, Doctor and Family Man, at last Ephraim has contentment, crowned by the birth of a son. But this raises issues. As his great granddaughter I can only assume that Ephraim was circumcised. I have dared to imagine that he had a dilemma over this issue for his own son. This is backed by factual circumstantial evidence: his published letter-battle with a southern physician in the professional Medical and Surgical Reporter in 1874, exactly the year of son William’s birth. The exchange escalated to the point of Ephraim’s fiery outrage on the whole issue of Jewish ‘superiority’. In his own words: ‘The singular perseverance of the Jews in health is a mean fiction…’
His conflict shows: he both defends and attacks Judaism. In medical circles at the time circumcision was thought to be good for health. But Ephraim believed it had become a religious political issue; the choice he made could be seen as taking sides. About his boy? My imagination has Ephraim decide against. And gives Helena very little say.
… Sadie’s smile flooded Ephraim with relief. His daughter would after all give her blessing to him marrying her best friend. She could forgive this new wound on top of the years of fatherlessness. And then she dropped her bombshell.
‘For myself, I shall be going to Charleston as soon as it can be arranged.’
‘Charleston? South Carolina? Why? Cincinnati is a fine place. And you two are like sisters.’
‘It is time that I cease to be a burden on you.’ She gave him a stern look, ‘Papa, please be understanding. I want to give you and Helena the peace of your engagement.’ He was unsure, and let her know he was displeased. But he had to let her go. After all she was a grown woman of twenty-four. What’s more, she had granted him his heart’s desire: his dear, dear Helena.
The challenging child of Ephraim’s first marriage moves to the sophisticated east coast city. How will she fare once out of her father’s influence? Beautiful and secretive, she returns to be bridesmaid to Helena at the wedding on 29 April 1873. Ephraim’s happiness is complete: ‘my bride is a secret garden, a walled garden, a private spring…’ Chapters 24 & 25. It won’t be long before Sadie has a half-brother.
‘My dear Helena, having come to know you through your friendship with my daughter, I have grown to see you in another light. Could you think ever to become my wife?’
She opened her mouth to speak and then closed it. His heart sank. ‘I was afraid of that. I am an old man, old enough to be your father. Please, let us forget –‘
‘No!’ she cried out. ‘It’s the surprise. I need time. And Sadie…’
‘Time, yes. Of course I cannot court you like the young men, but,’ he dared to touch her, one gentle touch to the back of her hand, ‘I can be ardent.’ She studied his face. ‘You do not forbid me to hope?’ She shook her head.
It was ridiculous. For the first time in his life Ephraim was a romantic in love.
In Chapter 24, Ephraim in Love, Dr Epstein courts Helena Greyer, half his age and his daughter’s best friend. Will Helena’s father, Dr Greyer, give permission? As important, will Sadie accept Helena as her father’s wife?
Ephraim hesitated. He was aware that he was a focus of female speculation. Yes, the time was ripe. But though he had met some fine, educated women in Cincinnati, none had spoken to his heart. And he had wondered how his daughter would feel.
‘I was wondering — you don’t mind my saying?’ Sadie continued after a nod of his head encouraged her, ‘I was thinking you could make Miss Pettifer happy.’
‘Out of the question,’ Ephraim said abruptly. Good heavens, what a thought. The woman was nearly forty. He had felt his daughter flinch at the vehemence of his denial, so he pretended to consider. ‘I have never thought of her that way.’
It is 1870 and Ephraim himself is forty-one. In Chapter 23, Sadie, he is enjoying an established family, community and professional life. But daughter Sarah — who insists on calling herself Sadie, her new American name — reveals she has a will equal to his own.
Ephraim unpacked his crates of medical texts, literature and books of faith, and commissioned a signboard. What finer place to be than Leavenworth, Kansas, the gateway to the West! As promised, there was certainly need for physicians here. He soon met the very best people of the city. Attorneys, bankers, manufacturers and merchants were among these civic-minded citizens, aspiring, sincere, self-made men. He shared their belief in American as the land of opportunity, and caught their enthusiasm for America’s duty to civilize this great continent — its manifest destiny.
Freed by his dear mother’s death to return to America and Christianity, Ephraim leaves behind Europe and his daughter for the second time. Full of optimism, in Chapter 21, America Regained, 1867-69, he sets up medical practice in a booming western town. But before long he encounters the darker side of the great American dream.