Like Virginia Sorensen, Maureen Whipple is one who, as Eugene England says in this volume’s dedication to them, “taught us how.” And, like Virginia Sorensen, I’ve never read her. I know her reputation—or, more accurately, I know the towering reputation of The Joshua Tree, a book many people whose taste I respect admire greatly. Of course, there was also the Mormon backlash against this nationally published novel. In the words of Emma Ray McKay, “I am so disgusted with the author of ‘The Giant Joshua’ that I can scarcely contain myself.”
With Sister McKay’s words often the first thing I think of when I think of Maureen Whipple (or Virginia Sorensen for that matter, since I often conflate them), I was expecting “They Did Go Forth” to be a fairly edgy work, pushing the boundaries. And it was through that lens that I interpreted Tildy Elizabeth’s early actions in the story. She’s trying to read the Book of Mormon while sitting with her sick—practically comatose—child. Couple that with the flashbacks of the hardships she and her faithful husband had been though at the seeming whims of Brigham Young and I found myself reading a story about how Tildy had lost her faith after feeling rejected of God; she was now and had long been oppressed by men in the faith including Brigham Young, her husband and the best available quack.
The doctor is an interesting case. Although doctor Priddy Meeks’s medicine is obviously bad to a twentieth-century reader, Tildy does not appear to doubt his expertise—indeed, she seems to believe he’s the best doctor between Orderville and Salt Lake City.
How much of my described reading so far can be ascribed to my expectations and how much is actually in the text is a question I open to your judgment. However, it quickly becomes clear that what Tildy has lost faith in is her own power to save her child, her faith in a doctor’s power to save her child, her faith in any earthly means for her child to be saved including normal workaday prayers. Instead, she’s relying on divine intervention. Specifically, a visit from the Three Nephites. She just needs to finish reading the passage about the Three Nephites, if only the interruptions would end (Priddy even took the book from her and slipped it under her daughter’s pillow in hopes it might scare off witches).
After he was gone, Tildy retrieved the book. It would soon be curfew-time. She hadn’t much longer. “And … he spake unto his disciples, one by one, saying unto them: What is it that ye desire of me, after that I am gone to the Father?” This was in South America when Jesus appeared to the Nephites there after he had completed his career in Judea and had arisen from the Holy Sepulchre. Nine of the Twelve answered him: “We desire that after we have lived unto the age of man, that … we may speedily come unto thee in thy kingdom.” But three were silent. “And … he turned himself unto the three, and said unto them, … Behold, I know your thoughts, and ye have desired … that ye might bring the souls of men unto me, while the world shall stand,” and because of this, “Ye shall not have pain while ye shall dwell in the flesh, neither sorrow save it be for the sins of the world.” And the Three Nephites “were changed from this body of flesh into an immortal state, that they could behold the things of God [and] did go forth upon the face of the land.”
At this moment she receives a visit from a mysterious stranger who heals her child.
The tale is reminiscent of the very similar (and equally wonderful) story “Christina” in Angela Hallstom’s Bound on Earth (originally published as “Unbroken” in Irreantum). But Whipple is not satisfied with a simple miraculous healing and instead adds another miracle to the story which I won’t mention here.
Without getting into a closer analysis, “They Did Go Forth” appears to be a faith-promoting story. Without any particular sweetness and with plenty of detours, but, yes, ultimately affirming.
When the 2321st word (of a 3128-word story) finally reveal’s Tildy’s last names—even though it is spoken by an ancient disciple of Christ who has come in response to her faith—I was uncertain whether to interpret “Stalworthy” as him calling her “still worthy” or hinting her worthiness had stalled. By keeping Tildy’s course, uneducated, lower-class, English accent from us until the final paragraphs, Whipple turns one final corner, leaving us standing, realizing how foreign and strange these long-ago people are. To force us to recognize Tildy’s alienness just as we had come to see her as the subject of a Sunday School story is the final bit of excellence.
The questions the story seems to be asking is this:
Sure you idolize these faithful pioneers of long ago. But are you anything like them?
Next up: Douglas Thayer.