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?
‘How can I trust myself? How can I know who may die at these hands.’
‘Ephraim,’ Helena murmured, trying to banish his thought with soothing.
‘I am cursed, cursed. God has punished me. I cannot heal, I kill.’
‘It was not you! It was Mr Maxwell’s mistake.’
‘But my hand wrote the scrip!’ Ephraim roared as stood up, making the chair fall over, and he left the room.
In Chapter 28, God Forsaken, Ephraim shakily emerges from grief over the death of his four-year-old son. Instead of quinine, the chemist had accidentally used morphine in medicine for the ill child. Ephraim blames himself. He descends into black depression. Of course I had to recreate his mental breakdown using my imagination. In his own words Ephraim Epstein says, ‘It [his son’s death] came near to breaking my heart and ending my life. I could not practise medicine any more.’ This abstinence was to last nine years. Meanwhile he has to find a way to support his wife and remaining child, baby Frieda.
Ephraim bent and kissed his son on the cheek, in tenderness, and to check his temperature. The quinine would soon provoke the sweat. ‘I will sit by him,’ Ephraim said to Helena. ‘You go and sleep. Everything will be all right now.’
Early birdsong woke Ephraim. Good, the child had slept through. But the sweat should have begun. He reached for the boy — and died. At that moment his heart and soul evaporated. His beautiful son, his William, lay with his eyes staring wide open, his face fixed in death.
In Chapter 27, The Darkness, Ephraim and Helena’s first child dies aged four. Investigation reveals that the death was caused by the misfilling of Ephraim’s own prescription. Instead of quinine, widely used at the time to reduce fever, the chemist had used morphine. Ephraim blames himself and withdraws into grief, hardly mourning the death of their second child, of convulsions, in the same year.
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?