BCC Late Summer Book Club: The Giant Joshua

By Andrew Hall and Lynne Larson

Welcome to the BCC Late Summer Book Club!

For the next eight weeks we will be reading Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, which is widely considered to be Mormonism’s greatest novel. Maurine Whipple is an enigmatic figure—in 1938 at age 35 she was broke, divorced and depressed, a failed grade school teacher who wrote obsessively but who had never published a substantial work. In that year, however, she was awarded a Houghton Mifflin Literary Fellowship for new writers, and the coveted prize allowed her to take pen in hand, let her genius flower, and create her masterpiece. Over the next two years she worked feverishly on The Giant Joshua, the epic story of the 1861 settlers of St. George. 

The Giant Joshua celebrates a vision of disparate people coming together to form a community of mutual love and service, while also portraying the hardships of pioneer life. Terryl L. Givens has stated, “No one has succeeded better than Whipple at capturing the recurrent Mormon paradox: the independence and loneliness of an exiled people . . . making it perhaps the fullest cultural expression of the Mormon experience.”[1] Most of all, Maurine was exceptional in her ability to depict the complicated choices and emotions of women living in polygamous marriages and in a patriarchal society. 

When The Giant Joshua was published in 1941, it received a flood of positive reviews nationwide. The literary critic Bernard DeVoto wrote in the Saturday Review of Literature, The Giant Joshua is excellent reading and it catches a previously neglected side of the Mormon story—the tenderness and sympathy which existed among a people dogged by persecution and hardships, forced to battle an inclement nature for every morsel of food they ate and to struggle for every moment of genuine happiness.”[2] The Book-of-the-Month Club review said the heroine was “one of the most appealing women in modern fiction.” 

In Maurine’s own community, however, the novel was less enthusiastically received. Many in St. George were offended by her depiction of polygamy, and her own father called the novel vulgar. When the apostle John A. Widtsoe accused her of “straining for the lurid” in a review in The Improvement Era[3], he shamed Maurine and probably squelched sales throughout Mormon country. She had expected Joshua to be welcomed by her LDS neighbors and even by the ecclesiastical authorities, for she saw her characters as heroic in their accomplishments in spite of their human weaknesses, and not “vulgar” because of them. She was badly shaken by the negative response. Still, although her attachment to the institution vacillated over the years, she never left the Church and remained fiercely loyal to “her people.” She managed to publish a Utah travel book and a few notable magazine articles over the next two decades, but was never able to complete another novel—one of the great tragedies of Mormon cultural history.

However, there is now hope. BCC Press will soon publish A Craving for Beauty: The Lost Works of Maurine Whipple, edited by Veda Hale, Andrew Hall, and Lynne Larson. The volume contains over 450 pages of literary work by Maurine in her prime, most of which has never been published, including over 200 pages from Cleave the Wood, her planned sequel to The Giant Joshua. The volume is full of excellent material, including stories that take on issues of faith and superstition, community and isolation, oppression and tolerance. Maurine was ahead of her time in her calls for gender and racial equality, a heritage with which we should become more familiar. Participating in the Giant Joshua book club will offer everyone a chance to prepare for this momentous occasion in Mormon literary history.

A post on two chapters of The Giant Joshua will appear on the blog every seven days over the next eight weeks. The authors will provide commentary on the content, the story of Maurine’s efforts at composing each chapter in 1938-1940, details on the real historical figures on whom she based her characters, and links to selections of her unpublished works. 

So please prepare yourselves by reading the dramatic opening two chapters and get ready to share your own comments on the blog or on Twitter (#GiantJoshua). These chapters introduce Clorinda (Clory) MacIntyre, who begins as an orphaned Mormon girl compelled to become the third wife of a man who has been like an adoptive father to her. Clory, her new husband, and two sister wives are part of an 1861 emigrant wagon train traveling from Salt Lake City to the arid lands of the Dixie Mission. It will introduce the real historical figures of Erastus Snow and John D.Lee[4], and culminate in the blessing of an ox, and a baby’s birth, while the party desperately scrambles to pull its wagons over a cliff. A triumphant entry into what will become St. George awaits them. 

Michael Austin has said that the creation of The Giant Joshua is “nothing less than a miracle”. It is a miracle you won’t want to miss.


[1] Terryl R. Givens. People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 289

[2] Bernard DeVoto, Saturday Review of Literature, Jan. 4, 1941.

[3] [John A. Widtsoe], “On the Book Rack,” Improvement Era, 44 (February 1941), p. 93. The story of Maurine’s relationship with Church leaders, including previously unknown documents which tell of a 1935 encounter between Maurine and Widtsoe which may have colored Widtsoe’s view of Maurine, will be told in an upcoming book club post.

[4] Maurine’s portrayal of John D. Lee and the aftermath of the Mountain Meadows Massacre was based on information she had received from her St. George friend and former teacher Juanita Brooks. Maurine and Juanita had a long and troubled relationship, they were two very different personalities drawn together by the desire to write and explore the past of their communities, traits which set them off as odd to the rest of the community. Maurine had little compunction about “borrowing” stories she read in journals and other materials gathered by Juanita, and although Juanita helped to edit the entire novel, she resented Maurine publishing some of the stories before she was able to complete the scholarship which would result in her masterpiece, The Mountain Meadows Massacre (1950). The fact that our greatest novelist and our greatest historian were close collaborators for many years is remarkable. The story of their partnership and fallings out will be told in an upcoming book club post.

Comments

  1. Danielle Thompson Mouritsen says:

    How wonderful! I had just convinced my bookclub to read The Giant Joshua for August and now this news! Perhaps we will hold off until September. Eugene England first introduced me to The Giant Joshua in the early 90s, so it’s been a while.

  2. .

    Great novel.

  3. I remember reading this years ago when I was single living in st. George. Broke my heart.

  4. A Voracious Reader says:

    Where can you get this book? Preferably a digital copy.

  5. Andrew H. says:

    Unfortunately “The Giant Joshua” it is not available as an ebook, so order your physical copies from one of these links today!

    https://uofupress.lib.utah.edu/the-giant-joshua/
    The new collection, “A Craving for Beauty: The Lost Works of Maurine Whipple” will be available in both digital and physical forms when it is published later this year.

  6. Andrew H. says:

    Did the Amazon link work?

  7. A Voracious Reader says:

    The Amazon link didn’t work but I found it from a used bookstore affiliated with Amazon. Thanks!

  8. You can find lots of used copies online at Pioneer book, too
    https://www.pioneerbook.com/product/35136/The-Giant-Joshua-Whipple-Maurine

  9. Andrew H. says:

    I’m sorry to see that copies are not as easily accessible as I thought. The University of Utah Press site does not appear to have any copies. Choices appear to be:
    1. Amazon still has some affordable copies through their affiliated sellers.
    2. Pioneer books, which has some copies.
    https://www.pioneerbook.com/product/35136/The-Giant-Joshua-Whipple-Maurine
    3. Ken Sanders has copies https://www.kensandersbooks.com/advSearch.php
    4. Sam Wellers has copies. https://www.wellerbookworks.com
    5. Ebay, which lists some copies. 
    Public libraries often have copies.
    It is worth it. Good luck!

  10. Callie Ngaluafe says:

    Love Mormon lit that is nuanced and thoughtful. So grateful for the handful of good stuff we’ve got, this being one of them.

  11. Andrew H. says:

    Apparently new copies are now available at the University of Utah Press website, for $17.95.

    https://uofupress.lib.utah.edu/the-giant-joshua/

    A couple of days ago if you tried the UofU Press website, they said that there were no copies available. But now they say there are copies available. Western Epics, owned by the late Sam Weller, supposedly owned the copyright, and had kept the book in print for decades. UofU distributes it. Maybe they went to the warehouse and opened some boxes of them, because of demand from the BCC book club.

  12. I reread it years ago and started rereading it in July. Perfect timing!

  13. launeslow says:

    Where do we find the book?

    On Mon, Aug 10, 2020 at 12:37 PM By Common Consent, a Mormon Blog wrote:

    > bccpresseditor posted: ” By Andrew Hall and Lynne Larson Welcome to the > BCC Late Summer Book Club! For the next eight weeks we will be reading > Maurine Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, which is widely considered to be > Mormonism’s greatest novel. Maurine Whipple is an enigmat” >

  14. I read this years ago. I’ve never met anyone else who has read it, so I will look forward to your discussion.

  15. SUZANNE GARDNER STOTT says:

    When I took my copy from the bookshelf it was like seeing an old friend! I am greatly enjoying the second time through. My ancestors were called to the Cotton Mission making it even more wonderful to read again!

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