The expansiveness and comic twists of Woiwode’s second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album, offer a marked contrast to What I’m Going to Do, I Think. In Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Woiwode parades sixty-three characters before the reader by the beginning of chapter 3. True to its subtitle, “A Family Album,” Beyond the Bedroom Wall is a rather impish and gangly work of loosely connected snapshots of three generations of the German Catholic immigrant Neumiller family. Woiwode straightforwardly invites the reader to leaf through this “album” not as a rigorously chronological narrative but as a curiosity piece, pausing at particular episodes and events.
From sentimental scenes of a father telling his children stories and the poignancy of a child fighting a nearly fatal illness to the agonizing grief of losing one’s spouse, Beyond the Bedroom Wall is an engaging homage to the seemingly evaporating family unit at the end of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, the novel’s “plot” is nearly impossible to paraphrase, consisting as it does of some narrative, some diary entries, and even its protagonist Martin Neumiller’s job application for a teaching position. Woiwode had published nearly a third of the forty-four chapters of Beyond the Bedroom Wall as self-contained short stories in The New Yorker; thus it is no surprise that the book reads as a discontinuous montage of events, images, and personalities. Woiwode reworked many of these episodes, foregrounding other characters and character traits, for his collection The Neumiller Stories.
Part 1 of the novel opens with the funeral of Otto Neumiller, a German immigrant farmer who had brought his family to the United States, and it continues, to part 5, with stories of the third generation of Neumillers, concluding in 1970, thus bringing members of the Neumiller family full circle from birth to life to death. Otto Neumiller had emigrated to America in 1881, relocating in the plains of North Dakota. As the reader meets him at the end of his life, he stands poised between two worlds, knowing neither the love nor the admiration of his neighbors, but seeking to bequeath something of value to his son, Charles. The farm he tended and leaves behind becomes emblematic, not of his success as a man of the soil but of his life as a devoted father who has sown and reaped a loyal and steadfast family, one whose strength is not in great friendships or possessions but in mutual love.
After setting this context,...
(The entire section is 1052 words.)