“Maurine Whipple, Age 16, Takes a Train North” by Theric Jepson was a finalist in the 2012 Four Centuries of Mormon Stories contest. It was originally published online at Everyday Mormon Writer on October 18, 2012.
Maurine slapped down onto the plush double bench across from a man in a well kempt but slightly old-fashioned suit. His face seemed to grow out from a pair of small round spectacles and a graying moustache. He did not seem to have noticed her as his eyes remained directed at his book. She set down her satchel and tried to peer over the top and see its title.
“It’s the new Twain.”
He hadn’t moved—even his lips had not seemed to move.
“I read that’s . . . an evil book.”
“I’ve read that myself.” The man looked up to gaze at Maurine. “What do you think?”
Maurine knew the proper answer, but she also knew the wrong answer. “I think I should like to read it for myself.”
“Ah. You are an Eve then.”
Maurine frowned. “I’m not sure what you mean by that.”
“I doubt that. What you’re not sure of is whether I mean it to be complimentary.” He waved a hand. “Or not.”
The man waited, but to Maureen it still seemed his turn to speak. After a while his head began to incline toward his novel and she leaped in to fill the space.
“Is it good?”
He looked back up.
“I mean—do you like it.”?”
“Like it?” He closed the book on his finger and with his other hand brushed his moustache. “No, I don’t suppose I do. He was terribly angry before he died.”
“I’m not allowed to read his books. They say he hates the Mormons.”
“Say that they do. But you’ve read him anyway, of course.”
Maurine froze and thought of lying. But she could see he already knew. “Joan of Arc,” she whispered.
The man broke into a smile and he leaned towards her. “Did you? Did you really? I’ve long loved his books about boys, but I do think Joan is his greatest work. What did you think of it?”
” It—” Maurine bit her cheek to prevent a smile. “It was good.”
“You have more to say than that, I’m sure. It’s a terrific book, I agree, no matter what Shaw or other men of the world may say. I’m sure they don’t like us, so why should we agree with them on books. Of course, we were never more than fodder for the stage to Twain as well, I’m afraid. But come. Favorite character.”
He leaned back into his seat and regarded her.
Maurine had never been looked at by a man like this. He seemed to see only her eyes and her thoughts and nothing else.
“I like—I like Joan. That she knows who she is and who’s talked to her and that she never backs down.”
“And what is it about that aspect of Joan that appeals to you?”
“I could never be like that.” Maurine blushed. The words had sprung forth before she realized she was saying them. But since they were out . . . . “I mean—how does anyone really know like that? I guess someone like Joan or Joseph Smith. They see things, they hear things. I’ve never seen anything!”
The man nodded. “Yes. I know. Neither have I. Is that the only path to knowledge?”
“I—in my mind, I mean—I imagine that you don’t really get a testimony—not until you’re dying. And you’ve proved you need one. I mean—that’s how it will be for me. Other people have testimonies and say them all the time. They’re so sure.”
The man bent the page in his book and set it on the empty seat beside him. “That’s a serious question for anyone, no matter their age. But you must be, what, twenty?”
“Sixteen! And no chaperone on so long a trip?”
“I’m not judging you. It’s a sign of great trust, being on a train alone. Are you headed for Salt Lake City?”
“As am I. As is everyone on the train, I suppose.”
“We’re all in it together!” He laughed and crossed his legs. ” What do you read for answers?”
“To your questions. About testimonies and so forth.”
Maurine shrugged and slouched down a bit. “The scriptures.”
“No, no. I’m not asking for a right answer.” The man wagged a finger at her. “You are a student of books. What gives you answers? We’ve discussed Mark Twain. What else?”
Maurine fingered the fabric of her dress. Then, in one sudden movement, grabbed her red-dust-stained satchel from the under her legs and pulled out a ragged book. “Do you know this?”
Half his mouth smiled. “Indeed I do. Added Upon. And, if I’m not mistaken, not the latest edition. Forgive an old man’s opinion, but the final version is better than that one.”
“You’re not that old.”
He laughed, surprisingly loud and honest. “Old enough to be your father, methinks. But not too old, thank you. All the same. What do you think of this poor author’s attempt?”
“Well. All the girls I know have read it. I’ve started it many times. But I never make it to the end. To me, where the characters die, that’s the best part. I love how the book isn’t sad when they die. Or maybe love isn’t the word. I’m perplexed. Bothered. But I still love it. I wish I could believe like that so death wouldn’t hurt so much. Or be so scary.”
“Then why don’t you finish it?”
“I don’t know.”
“In the end the families are reunited and they are happy and so forth.”
“I know that. But I still can’t read it. I don’t know why not.”
Maurine felt her throat get suddenly sore. Her voice came out as a rasp. “Maybe I don’t want answers.” She felt a tear grow in her right eye and hurriedly rubbed it away and took a deep breath. “I guess—I guess I’m still—I’m looking for questions. Better questions, maybe?”
The man sighed and looked at her with an emotion she couldn’t name. Almost sympathy but without any superiority attached. “The questions are important.” He paused to nod at her doubt. “They are.”
Maurine frowned at him. “But because we’re Mormon we have answers and so that’s what he had to write. At least, that’s what my mama tells me when I try to write.”
“You’re a writer.”
“Well.” Maurine was locked by his eyes. “Not really—”
“You are. I thought so.” The man leaned forward and took her hand. “I can always tell. And I try so hard—” He looked away from her out the window. A certain sadness was evident in his profile. “I don’t know quite what we’re doing.”
“Are you a writer?”
“Mm.” He gestured weakly at her novel and sat back again. “That’s me. Not my best work, but the one, as you say, that all the girls read. Too many answers? Perhaps. But that’s what it’s about. Answers. But questions come first. They always do, they always have.”
Maurine nodded excitedly. “Questions— Wait. You’re Nephi Anderson?”
“You’re a real writer! I’ve never met a real writer before! How did you get to be a writer? How do you meet publishers? Are you rich? How do you—”
He held up a hand to stop her. “I’m not rich. I’ll give you my address and we can correspond if you like. I certainly would. But I want to ask you—Thomas Hughes said his whole object in writing was to get the chance of preaching. Did you like his School Days?”
“Not so much.”
“How old were you when you read it?”
“Didn’t like boys then, did you?”
Maurine laughed. “No.”
“His book—his preaching—all answers. And shouldn’t fiction provide answers that comfort and support?”
“But questions make you feel less alone.”
“How do you mean?”
Maurine paused to think, but finally admitted, “I’m not sure.”
“Too many questions and you may turn into the dying Twain. Angry.”
Maurine’s voice was small. “I don’t want to be angry.”
“No one does.” He smiled at her, his moustache rising. “And I’m sure you won’t be. Just promise. Promise you’ll never stop looking for answers. Then you can ask all the questions you like. Just keep hoping for answers.”
Maurine smiled. “I promise.”
He smiled again and made her shake on it. He rooted through his pockets for his card, stuck it in The Mysterious Stranger and handed her the book.
“Yes. I can get another if I like. And your next question can be how the man who loved Joan so purely can write something like this.”
Maurine nodded and held the book to her chest. “It won’t happen to me.”
He looked at her again with that purer version of sympathy. “I know it won’t. I know it won’t.”
They sat in companionable silence, slight smiles remaining on their face as they commented on passing sights. After a while, Brother Anderson pulled out another book which gave Maurine the permission she craved to open The Mysterious Stranger:
It was in 1590—winter. Austria was far away from the world, and asleep; it was still the Middle Ages in Austria, and promised to remain so forever. Some even set it away back centuries upon centuries and said that by the mental and spiritual clock it was still the Age of Belief in Austria. But they meant it as a compliment, not a slur, and it was so taken, and we were all proud of it. I remember it well, although I was only a boy; and I remember, too, the pleasure it gave me.
About the Author: Theric Jepson is the proprietor of Peculiar Pages which has brought readers The Fob Bible, Monsters & Mormons, Out of the Mount: 19 from New Play Project, and Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets. He is currently working on a new edition of Nephi Anderson’s greatest novel, Dorian. A list of his own fiction and poetry is available at thmazing.com, but don’t miss his novel Byuck, coming later this year from Strange Violin Editions, about BYU students in that year from our mystical past, 2000.*
*Author information as of the publication of this story.