The Giant Joshua, Chapters 11-12: Polygamy and Postmemory

by Sarah C. Reed

Inside the St. George Tabernacle

“Hell ain’t got no terrors for me after Dixie!” (The Giant Joshua, 406)

These two chapters see tribulations continue to come to our main characters, but with opportunities for happiness and reconciliation. With the plague of the black canker passed, taking many children, including Clory’s three, Erastus Snow calls a meeting to reassure the saints. He asks them to remember their trials with sickness in Nauvoo and Winter Quarters. Some would like to leave, but Erastus shames them as cowards lacking faith and promises things will improve.

In Abijah’s absence on a three-year mission, relations between his three wives have improved somewhat. While mourning the loss of her youngest son, ’Sheba arranges a surprise birthday party for Clory. Clory has retreated into herself after the death of her children and the guilt she feels. Her friend Pal fears she has become a “smiling shell” (422). When Pal brings her to the surprise party, Clory is overwhelmed and grateful for her friends and family. They enjoy the food, games, and each other’s company. Willie thinks to herself “No matter what happens to us, we’ll get by as long as we can laugh like this.” (429)

Clory’s improved spirits are short-lived. The next mail-coach includes a letter from Abijah, who tells her the death of her children is God’s punishment for her behavior. She reads this in the midst of the community receiving news that the federal government has renewed its efforts to end polygamy in the territory. As in Salt Lake City, the Relief Society sisters in the Dixie Mission express their indignation and defend polygamy.

Brigham Young returns to St. George to announce that a temple will be built there. The work on the Salt Lake Temple is paused due to “all this governmental trouble” (438). Brigham encourages Clory to learn to make buckskin gloves from the Indians in order to supplement her income, which she does. Things with the government continue to deteriorate to the point that Brigham Young and other prominent Mormons are arrested on the charge of “lascivious cohabitation.” Brigham returns to St. George for the groundbreaking of the temple. The sacred event is interrupted with the news that he is being charged with the murder of man named Yates during the Echo Canyon War and must appear in court in Salt Lake in one week.

Chapter 12 begins with the additional surprise that Abijah is coming home from his mission. ’Sheba kept his return a secret from Willie and Clory and so they are late to his welcome home parade. ’Sheba has also secretly prepared a feast and open house to celebrate Abijah’s return. He regales friends and family with the tales of his mission and everyone enjoys the party. The good mood of the evening is spoiled when Abijah discovers that ’Sheba had kicked Willie out of her bedroom in the house in favor of her boys.

When Clory has her turn with Abijah, she tells him about the deaths of the children. She is finally able to cry and “to take off the mask she had worn so long, to be her shivering, fearful, grieving self” (476). She tries to tell him of her guilt, self-recrimination, and lack of faith. He tells her that he was wrong to blame her and that their deaths were not God’s punishment. As they make up, he promises to build a house for her.

In the spring, things are looking up in Dixie. The work on the St. George Tabernacle is completed even as work on the temple is begun. Brigham Young’s indictments are quashed by the Supreme Court and he is released from jail. At a conference in the new tabernacle, ’Sheba is called as first counselor in the Stake Relief Society presidency, Clory as president of the Stake Young Ladies’ Retrenchment Society, and Abjiah as bishop of the Fourth Ward.

Abijah finishes Clory’s house in time for her to give birth to a son, James. The birth is difficult and is helped along by a priesthood blessing reminiscent of that Abijah gave to the ox on the journey south. Clory is able to borrow some of his faith and rallies. Shortly after, Willie gives birth to a girl but suffers from retained placenta. Brigham Young forbids them from asking the doctor to tend to her, rather encouraging them to have faith. Willie fails to deliver the afterbirth and dies after two weeks of suffering. Clory promises her she will have her sealed to her first family, who died on the handcart trek to Utah, and to raise her daughter, Tempelina.  

In these chapters, Whipple has two narrative strands dealing with polygamy. The first is the “off-screen” attempt by the federal government to end polygamy in Utah through the Cullom Bill and Judge James B. McKean’s prosecution of Brigham Young. The other is the close look at the inner-workings of polygamy in the MacIntyre family. The family is ruled by the first wife, Bathsheba, who sees Willie and Clory as enemies. In Abijah’s absence and in the aftermath of the canker plague, the shared sorrows of ’Sheba and Clory could have brought them closer. Although neither woman is willing to quite allow that kind of intimacy, ’Sheba’s surprise birthday for Clory is a token of fellowship during a difficult time. But when Abijah returns, so do the hostilities between wives. ’Sheba fires the first shot by not sharing the details of his return with Willie and Clory and then is shamed when Abijah forces her to let Willie return to her bedroom in the house. After that, Whipple writes “’Sheba’s brief truce was over, she had taken up her cudgels again” (472). We find out the full extent of Willie’s dislike for ’Sheba when she is dying. She makes Clory promise not to let ’Sheba raise her daughter or lay her out for burial. Death should make her free from ’Sheba’s tyranny. While economic communalism is stressed by their priesthood leaders, competition marks the relationships of Abijah’s wives.

In the period after her children die, Clory expresses some proto-feminist misgivings about polygamy. Her friend Pal tries to comfort her in her grief by saying “God knows best.” Clory replies “At least He thinks he does. All men think they do—men have lorded it over women since time began, and polygamy hasn’t helped them think any less of themselves. Give a man a little authority—see what happens to any man when he gets to be made bishop!” She follows up with the statement that “You certainly know that God is a He, all right, from the way He made women!” (422) Pal is startled and can only counter that a belief in the Hereafter will help you endure this life. Here, Whipple raises issues she has been exploring with since the beginning of the book: polygamy as religious imperative and patriarchal pleasure.

Later Clory reflects that “You can tell it was a man invented polygamy, whether it was the Lord or Joseph Smith. Don’t they know that women have to have love? That they tie up into hard little knots without it? But even a third of a man is better than none at all…” (434). Clory grapples with the question of love in marriage and love in polygamous marriages through most of the book. ’Sheba was Abijah’s sweetheart in their youth. Willie’s marriage with Abijah is a pragmatic one. Whipple leaves Clory’s relationship Abijah more ambiguous. Initially, she contrasts Abijah’s lust for Clory with Clory’s love for Free. Overtime, a genuine love between Abijah and Clory seems to develop. But Clory is still not sure she can be satisfied with “a third of a man.”

Whipple and Postmemory
Literary critic Edward Geary wrote of the way Whipple and her contemporaries like Virginia Sorensen, Vardis Fisher, Ardyth Kennelly, and Samuel Taylor deal with Mormon history in their works:  “Nearly all of the Mormon novels of the 1940s have their roots in the author’s efforts to come to terms with his or her Mormon heritage. These are expatriate novels. They resemble the works of the so-called ‘lost generation’ of the 1920s in their ambivalence towards a tradition which seems to have failed yet which still offers the only available spiritual anchor against a tide of meaninglessness.” (92). Geary sees their fascination with Mormon history as an inability to escape their “native province.” In contrast, I think that the preoccupation with their Mormon heritage is because it won’t go away. History doesn’t remain neatly in the past, but intrudes in the present and threatens the future.

I believe that Whipple and the other authors of Mormonism’s “Lost Generation” are practitioners of postmemory. Marianne Hirsch first identified postmemory in the works of “second generation” Jewish writers writing about the Holocaust. She found their body of work “characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation” (22). Creative fiction serves, then, as a way to interact with history and inherited cultural memory for those whose “connection to the past is thus not actually mediated by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation” (Hirsch 22, Her prime example is Art Spigelman’s Maus). As Hirsch has developed the concept, she sees the generational structure as the medium of the “transmission of traumatic knowledge and experience” (106). She goes on: “Postmemory describes the relationship that the generation after those who witnessed cultural or collective trauma bears to the experiences of those who came before, experiences they ‘remember’ only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up.” (106) Since then, postmemory has been used to investigate the creative expression of collective memory in a variety of disciplines.

To put this into a Mormon context, it is not only the death of Joseph Smith and the trek westward, but also the difficulties of life in Utah that contribute trauma to the collective Mormon identity. Dealing with this trauma requires a new self-understanding of that identity, past, present, and future. These authors’ postmemorial works point to how this history shapes and binds Mormons across generations, disrupting familiar narratives even as it overdetermines others. This history is inherited and inhabited by the descendants even when consciously ignored. Creative fiction serves, then, as a way to interact with history and inherited cultural memory.

In The Giant Joshua, Whipple explores well-known and the forgotten traumas of Mormon history. The heroic trek of pioneers to the Dixie Mission is plagued by costly mistakes. Mountain Meadows Massacre haunts the landscape. Communalism is unevenly practiced and the saints are in poverty much of the book. Polygamy is difficult. Conflict with the federal government destabilizes life in Utah. Whipple’s planned trilogy following Clory’s descendants would have shown the intergenerational effects of these traumas. Postmemory can help move the scholarly conversation beyond the polemics of identity, the anxiety of orthodoxy, and cultural cringe that has plagued Mormon literary scholarship, and help us take the long and abundant view of the interaction of Mormon literature and history.

Questions for discussion

  1. What role do each of Abijah’s wives play in the narrative?
  2. What do you think of the portrayal of Brigham Young and the historical events from the 1870s depicted in these chapters? Did Whipple use the historical material effectively?
  3.  Clory’s feelings about polygamy seem ambivalent in this section. She seems to be unhappy with the institution, but she grows closer to and happier with Abijah. Do you think Whipple will resolve this conflict? 

Works Cited

Geary, Edward A. “Mormondom’s Lost Generation: The Novelists of the 1940s.” Brigham Young University Studies, vol. 18, no. 1, 1977, pp. 89–98.

Hirsch, Marianne. Family Frames. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.

See also, Jessie L. Embry. “Overworked Stereotypes or Accurate Historical Images: The Images of Polygamy in The Giant Joshua.” Sunstone, April 1990.

Sarah C. Reed is Assistant Professor in the Brigham Young University Department of History, where she teaches courses on Northern European history and family history. Her published works include “The Cosmopolitan Saint: Nephi Anderson’s Scandinavian-American Mormon Identity,” Scandinavian-Canadian Studies


  1. The passage about the dedication of the St. George Tabernacle in TGJ p. 483 includes a description of an “ominous, All-Seeing Eye Brother Milne had pained above the organ loft to remind worshipers should I’ve with an eye single to the glory of God.” Everyone should check out the photograph of the recently refurbished interior, including the wonderfully odd all-seeing eye of God, the finger pointing to heaven, and the handclasp of brotherhood, in this article.

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