(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Larry Woiwode is known primarily as a master of the novel; however, he has also worked throughout his career to establish himself as a serious and respected practitioner of the short story. His first collection, The Neumiller Stories (1990), functioned both as a collection of individual stories and as material attendant to his novels Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975) and Born Brothers (1989). With Silent Passengers, however, Woiwode brings together ten stories that cohere not because of their shared subject matter and character-lives, but because of their shared concerns and a consistent moral vision.

These stories are primarily stories of men-the stories either are told directly by men or focus on the individual lives and consciousnesses of men. When told in the first person they often have the quality of personal essays; their style is almost confessional (indeed, one is entitled “Confessionals”), as they seek to explain some mystery or quality germane to the art of living. All ten of the stories concern themselves with men troubled by problems of family, of spiritual uncertainty, of personal, physical failing. Generally, these men seek absolution and redemption (after all, Woiwode’s moral vision is inextricably bound up with his Christian belief); at the very least, they seek understanding of the logic (or illogic) of events leading to their immediate circumstance.

The brief “Wanting an Orange” seems pure personal recollection. The story’s narrator recalls his childhood winters on the northern Plains and the perfect delight of the winter orange in such a landscape. While the story functions, in part, as an anatomy of the orange, it also works as a prose-poem that celebrates the ecstasy of experience both sensory and spiritual. Woiwode deepens the story’s resonance by linking the narrator and his brother (and the fruit) to the biblical story of the Garden and to the brothers of that story, his point being the inextricability of familial relation. The orange and its story “fill” themselves with meaning and value in this harsh time and place.

Time and place also figure in the second story, “A Necessary Nap,” which takes place on an eastern Montana ranch in the middle of winter. The story centers on a family—Gilian and Anne (husband and wife) and their four-year-old son Will-and on Will’s struggles against sleep. Gilian works to get inside Will’s skin, to enter the landscape of his unconscious, to share in the dreams that cause Will to cry out and to wake. Once in that world, Gilian comprehends the dark fear: It is death with its eternal rumblings of vulnerability and separation. Yet that very fear of death is one tied up in the nature of the father-son relationship, or so Gilian comes to believe in a confused sort of epiphany:

He stands and feels he is rising through layers of the night he has imagined, and understands that in some unsound way, in the isolation this life has forced on them, he has come to view Will as a threat. To him and Anne. Those bloody fantasies weren’t Will’s; they were his; they were out of control

harmful, he sees, and a feeling of constriction (as bad as being inside a four-year-old’s skin) wraps and heats his face. He’s been trying to supplant his own son. “Good God!” he cries.

Gilian’s insight is clouded somewhat by the guilt-laden psychology of the modern age, but it does manage to express the awesome, eternal complexity of paternity. Moreover, that complexity is rooted for Woiwode in the Christian motif of the son sacrificed by (and for) the father, a motif wrought from the tension of warring impulses: submission and resistance, delivery and protection.

In the collection’s third story, “Winter Insects,” the powerful sense of paternal responsibility remains, as the central character puzzles out the nature of his role as father and husband. Les is burdened with memory; he carries the echoes of his own parents’ arguments and works to shield his two- year-old daughter Annie from similar strife. A more significant memory, however, is that of an overturned van-an accident encouraged not so much by chance as by weakness, a drinking problem. Thus, the story appropriately narrates Les’s attempt to navigate his way safely through a winter landscape, his family in tow, keeping his vision (both physical and moral) clear. When that vision is clouded by the memory of his accident (“sometimes, as he was driving, a sensation would travel across the pattern he’d felt on his face, and he had to brush at it like cobwebs”), Les finds himself retrieved by the magic of family. He takes up his daughter in a moment of startling clarity, simultaneously creating and celebrating yet a second “moment that would always be sustained.” The past, in that moment, accedes to the power of the present and of love-in-the- present.

The power of love-in-the-past dominates the next story, “Owen’s Father.” Owen Bierdeman, age twenty-three, amid the minor chaos of his own life, seeks to under-stand his father’s persistent influence on him. Gazing at a passport photograph of his father, Owen remembers the marital doubts, the hints and...

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Silent Passengers Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The narrative does not unfold in chronological order, which in this case heightens the suspense. It begins with the family’s first return to the ranch from the hospital with James, and the accident and its aftermath are related in flashbacks. As the story moves on the parallel tracks of the return to the ranch and the accident and its aftermath, each track illuminates the other.

The intense focus of the story is revealed in the characters’ names, or rather the lack of some of them. The reader is never told Steiner’s first name, which establishes a certain distance between the reader and the character and probably prevents a too close, and in this case uncomfortable, intimacy. It also invites speculations on the meaning of his last name; Steiner is stonelike (unemotional, unfeeling) in his pre-accident life but becomes more rocklike (dependable) in his reactions during and after the accident.

Similarly, the reader never learns the twins’ individual names; they are thrust to the edges of the story, only noticeable in their inspiration for the motivation of Billy Archer, the neighbor whose horse injures James, to invite the children to his ranch, or for their reactions to James’s actions. However, Woiwode’s eye for character, typically deft and careful, is charitable in the best sense of the word in his depictions of the emergency room doctor and the pediatric nurse, who are capable of making a personal connection to James and his parents despite the omnipresence of such implicit tragedies in their own professional lives.

The traditional technique of the concluding epiphany is used here in its normal literary sense of a key moment of insight, often left to the main character (as well as the reader) to interpret. The vision of a family frozen and suspended against the stark beauty of nature, rescued, perhaps momentarily, from imminent danger and the threat of death, remains before Steiner as his son returns to normality. He—and the reader—must ponder its meaning. It is also an epiphany in the religious sense of the word, a presentation, a showing forth, of the invisible and spiritual and eternal against the impermanent and heartbreaking mundane world.