Bright Angels & Familiars: “They Did Go Forth” by Maureen Whipple


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. Continue reading “Bright Angels & Familiars: “They Did Go Forth” by Maureen Whipple”

The (Re)Identification of (Collective) Memory, Part II

I pick up today where I left off yesterday.

* * * * *
Across the Ironic Distance: Negotiating the Narrative Gaps

Each of the ten stories in Where Nothing Is Long Ago deals with the protagonist’s (Budge’s) efforts to negotiate her way into this awareness and through or into some aspect of life in a tight-knit, largely orthodox Mormon community and with the narrator’s attempts to bring order to her younger self’s experience and to mediate between this experience, her continuing participation in/observation of this community, and the reader’s world. The title story–the sequence’s opening narrative–centers on a fictionalized murder over water rights as committed by Brother Tolsen, one of the early twentieth century Danish Mormon village’s most respectable and orthodox men. The story opens with the narrator quoting from something her “mother wrote [her] recently”: “You’ll probably remember Brother Tolsen and that awful thing that happened when you were a little girl.” Then the narrator offers this exposition, “Her fat script traveled the whole way around the photograph and obituary she had clipped from our Mormon newspaper,” and another statement from her mother: “The killing wasn’t even mentioned at his funeral. All the speakers just said what a good man he always was” (3) This interaction between the narrator, her community (through her mother’s “script,” which is “fat” with implications), and her past frames not just the story, prompting wonder over who Brother Tolsen is and what awful thing he may have been involved in, but the entire sequence of stories, episodes that ripple outward from this fundamental interface (between narrator, community, and memory) and that embody the semiotic systems of this community, especially its maintenance and perpetuation through the acts of remembering, including story-telling and ritual. Continue reading “The (Re)Identification of (Collective) Memory, Part II”

The (Re)Identification of (Collective) Memory, Part I

Note: This is the first post in a two part serialization of a seminar paper I wrote this last semester for a class in the modern(ist) short story sequence. As examples of the genre, we read Dubliners, Winesburg, Ohio, In Our Time, Go Down, Moses, The Golden Apples, The Maples’ Stories, and Cathedral. Along the way, we engaged several theories that lend themselves well to reading the genre of the short story sequence, one of which was Wolfgang Iser‘s brand of reader-response theory, which you’ll get a little taste of toward the end of this post.

Instead of engaging one of the texts we read in class for my paper, I decided to apply myself toward a reading of Virginia Sorensen’s Where Nothing Is Long Ago: Memories of a Mormon Childhood, which, as my introduction details, has variously been read as a collection of short stories (though not a short story sequence/cycle, which, among other things, presupposes a greater degree of connection between the cycle’s narratives) and as a collection of personal essays. Rather, I make a case here for the book as what Sandra A. Zagarell calls a narrative of community (sorry for the lack of accessibility to Zagarell’s article; this front-page view is the best I can do with what the web gives me).

I’ve tried to steer clear of reliance on litcrit jargon here, but I’m not sure how successful I’ve been. Your feedback on such matters is more than welcome as I try to expand this draft (potentially) into a publishable article. In other words, if I’m not clear, tell me, and I’ll do my best to become clear.

Today’s post sets the theoretical stage for my discussion. Part two, which I’ll post tomorrow, digs into the meat of Sorensen’s text, though, I must admit, I wasn’t able to spend as much time with each narrative here as I’d like to (due to time constraints, etc.). I do plan, however, to flesh out my discussion of these stories and the connections between them and the generic qualities of the narrative of community a bit more as I move through the revision process.

So in short, I’m using this venue as a trial run for my critical (re)exploration of Sorensen’s text. Continue reading “The (Re)Identification of (Collective) Memory, Part I”