The Neumiller Stories (Magill's Literary Annual 1990)
The Neumiller Stories is a collection of thirteen short stories arranged by date of composition: five from 1964- 1967, five from 1968-1972, and three from 1982-1989. The last three have not been collected before; the first ten, all of which were first published in The New Yorker, were incorporated with significant revisions into Larry Woiwode’s second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975). The stories vary in length—from five to forty-five pages—as well as in quality.
What holds the stories together—what makes this more than merely another collection of short stories by a single author—is their focus on one family in various stages of its history in North Dakota and Illinois. No one story spells out all the connections of the various family members to their immigrant roots or to one another, but, taken together, the thirteen stories create a single small tapestry of American family life in the middle of the twentieth century.
The stories do not, however, present a single or consistent family unit: Written over three decades, individual stories change characters and family structure to fit their own needs. Martin Neumiller switches jobs without explanation; Alpha Neumiller dies early, but the number of children she leaves changes from story to story. What connects the stories, instead, is the unity or coherence of mood, tone, and setting, and their interwoven themes.
In the first third of the collection, stories detail the Neumillers’ early life. Deathless Lovers,” for example, opens the volume with a brief glimpse of an unnamed young boy (Jerome at age ten?) staying with his maternal grandmother in the summer after his mother has died. The next, “Beyond the Bedroom Wall,” is a first-person account (perhaps by the same young character) of the family’s move from North Dakota to Illinois—and of the impending death of his mother in childbirth. “The Visitation” returns to the time when Jerome was five and his mother’s two brothers paid a surprise visit to the family home in North Dakota. In “Pheasants,” Martin Neumiller (now selling insurance, and the father of two sons in North Dakota) kills a brace of birds, and Alpha must wait up impatiently for him to return from his weekly pinochle game. In “The Beginning of Grief,” Alpha has died the year before, and Martin, now a plasterer, is overwhelmed by rearing their five children alone.
The second quintet of stories carries readers back and forth in time. “The Suitor” takes place on January 1, 1939, when Martin Neumiller has just asked Alpha Jones to be his wife. “Pneumonia” leaps ahead a few years to a crisis when their second son Charles nearly dies in the hospital. “The Old Halvorson Place” steps back two years to a time when Martin Neumiller was the high school principal in...
(The entire section is 1202 words.)
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