Outside of the Book of Mormon, the highest achievement in Mormon literature is possibly Maureen Whipple’s largely forgotten classic novel, The Giant Joshua. Certainly one of my favorites. Unlike the Book of Mormon, it isn’t chloroform in print. Whipple’s book deals rather heartbreakingly with the harsh conditions the early pioneers faced settling southern Utah, including all the thorny problems one would imagine inherent in their avowal of polygamy. I suppose it is for this reason the book ruffled many a feather tick when it was first published in 1941, but for my money no book has done a better job of helping to humanize the early Saints.
When the elder missionary at the Hill Cumorah Mormon Visitor Center told us he was from St. George, I looked at his badge and saw the last name “Whipple” and asked, “You related to Maureen Whipple?” “Yes, he tells me. I’m her nephew.” The man looked to be somewhere between seventy and eighty years of age, but his eyes lit up with renewed enthusiasm at my recognition. “We just called her ‘Reen’,” he went on. “You know, she was living with us when she wrote that book. Really struggling with it. Finally my mother put her in a spare room and said, ‘you sit here and write. Don’t worry about anything else.’ She brought her breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” “Did she ever write anything else?” “Oh sure, articles for Look magazine, other national magazines.” “Any other novels?” “No.” Any other fiction?” “No. No, that was the only one. Real controversial book when it first came out. I remember a lot of people in St. George were upset by it, especially her portrayal of polygamy.” “I bet.” “Yup, Aunt ‘Reen.” “Has anyone ever written her biography?” “Not that I know of.” “Anyone collected her other writings?” “Someone in the family has. Some of them.” I let him know it was great talking to him and that The Giant Joshua was one of my favorite novels.
This wasn’t our first chance encounter with someone during our Mormon road trip. Brother Funk ran into his eighth grade basketball coach, now an elder missionary, inside the Independence, Missouri, Mormon visitor’s center. Again, in Palmyra, there was a young Sister from Logan, Funk’s hometown. The two of them exchanged last names and found some common connections. Small insular world, this Mormonism.