(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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,...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A sprawling, episodic family history, Beyond the Bedroom Wall conveys with extraordinary fidelity and an enlightening sense of wonder the lives of ordinary people. It focuses on the Neumiller family, originally of North Dakota, but ranges over their extended families, their antecedents, and their communities. In doing so, the novel succeeds at times, without particularly attempting to, in surpassing the conventions of its genre. It attains an idiosyncratic, though nevertheless authentic, eminence as an anthropology of the affections.

The protagonist is Martin Neumiller, a sensitive, awkward, God-fearing son of the Midwest. Such story as the novel contains derives from him, his achievements, and his disappointments. The latter outnumber the former. Virtually all of his significant experiences take place within the rigid frame of the here and now. His failures and attainments, therefore, are no greater and no less than those of any ordinary man.

Martin has, however, one important, distinguishing feature: his Catholicism. His faith creates some problems as he attempts to establish his teaching career—predictably, given that he lives in North Dakota. Yet again, these difficulties are not given a decisive dramatic influence in the novel’s development. They are, like everything else in Martin’s world, part of the varied tapestry of which his life consists. Moreover, as though to compensate for professional frustration, Martin is able to marry Alpha, although she is not a Catholic and her family objects.

Martin is a firm believer in...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Nelson, Shirley. “Stewards of the Imagination: Ron Hansen, Larry Woiwode, and Sue Miller.” Christian Century 112 (January 25, 1995): 82-85. Nelson interviews Hansen, Woiwode, and Miller, focusing on the role of religion in their works and on readers’ reactions to their novels.

Scheick, William J. “Memory in Larry Woiwode’s Novels.” North Dakota Quarterly 53, no. 3 (1985): 29-40. Scheick discusses the importance of memory in three of Woiwode’s novels, What I’m Going to Do, I Think (1969), Beyond the Bedroom Wall, and Poppa John (1981). He identifies two types of memories, those that make a character feel guilt and long for death and those that develop a sense of connection to one’s family. The ability to order these allows Woiwode’s characters to achieve a balance between them.

Woiwode, Larry. “Homeplace, Heaven, or Hell.” Renascence 44 (1991): 3-16. Woiwode discusses the problem of being considered merely a regional writer because he writes about the Midwest. He says that all writers must write about some place and that only geographical chauvinism makes one place better than another. The author also asserts that the main duty of a Christian writer is to write the truth, which means to write about a place in precise detail.

Woiwode, Larry. “Where the Buffalo Roam: An Interview with Larry Woiwode.” Interview by Rick Watson. North Dakota Quarterly 63 (Fall, 1996): 154-166. A revealing interview about Woidwode’s homecoming and the effect it has had on his writing.