Larry Woiwode has used his life and his North Dakota and Illinois childhood to create a series of fictional autobiographical works, rooted in a narrowly circumscribed region peopled by a family that spans several generations. Like his southern counterparts William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, he is a regionalist whose depiction of his characters’ values, religion, and family transcends the immediate and topical because his themes—memory, death, guilt, identity—are universal. Even when his characters leave the Midwest, they take those values with them, and the clash of those values with more urban ones is at the root of some of Woiwode’s best fiction. That fiction is expressed in a style that encompasses shifting points of view and the inclusion of materials such as diaries, letters, lists, and prose, creating a sense of a prose photograph, an image caught in time.
The Neumiller Stories
Woiwode’s short fiction has appeared in a number of magazines, most notably The New Yorker, where he received the encouragement and guidance of William Maxwell. After the stories’ publication, many of them were revised and included in Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album, a long, multigenerational novel that resembles an album, or scrapbook, because it contains lists, diaries, and descriptions of photographs, the last a recurrent motif in his fiction. The sprawling nature of his novel accommodated the altered Neumiller stories, which were reworked again for their appearance in The Neumiller Stories.
Although The Neumiller Stories is divided into three parts representing three phases of Woiwode’s literary career (1964-1967, 1968-1972, and 1982-1989), the collection seems unified in character, setting, and theme, and while the stories do not progress sequentially from the first North Dakota Neumillers to the last, there is novel-like development, with flashbacks, and the last three stories focus on the latest Neumillers. Moreover, the collection begins and ends with a male attempting to deal with the death of Alpha Neumiller, who serves as the center of the collection of stories—the date of her death becomes the point from which the time and setting of each story is measured and located.
“Deathless Lovers,” the first story, occurs within a year of Alpha’s death and concerns a brief conversation between an unnamed boy, probably Jerome, and his grandmother. Unlike the rest of the stories, it is written in the present tense, a literary device Woiwode used in his early stories but soon abandoned because of its limits. In this six-page story, the present tense is workable and appropriate because it suggests the temporary suspension of time, the sense of the snapshot, the moment not to be forgotten. Even though the boy is with his maternal grandmother, his thoughts are of his mother.
Half the story concerns the turbulent relationship between the grandmother and grandfather, which the boy accurately perceives as love because of the “so, so” she croons to her invalid husband. Her love for the boy is not stated but is reflected in her “so, so” assurance to the boy as she takes him in her arms. The smell of her dress is “a smell he will remember in its layers of detail whenever he loves a woman, fears that he’ll lose her, and his love becomes so smothering and possessive that she runs from him.” The grandmother is the mother, who in turn becomes all women he loves and fears losing, and that fear is encapsulated in his memory as a moment, a smell that will recur throughout his life.
A nine-year-old serves as the first-person narrator of “Beyond the Bedroom Wall,” which concerns his perception of the events surrounding Alpha’s death. One of Woiwode’s literary strengths is his ability to capture a child’s thoughts, apprehensions, and sense of isolation. In this story, Jerome’s physical isolation in his windowless bedroom mirrors his isolation from the adult world. The “wall” is both physical and emotional. After dreaming about being unable to follow his mother, Jerome wakes to find a “wall” on the wrong side of his bed: “If there was a wall where I was convinced there was none, I couldn’t imagine what waited for me in that emptiness where the wall should be.” Jerome senses the “emptiness” is his mother’s death, which has yet to happen but which will always stay with him.
In both “The Visitation” and “Pheasants,” memory is associated, metaphorically and literally, with a photograph. Through a metaphorical photograph, the visit by Jerome’s uncles becomes a “visitation” as Conrad, Elling, and Alpha become spirits: “As if he were viewing a photograph that had been snapped of them at that moment, and began receding into his mind retreating like spirits he had taken by surprise.” In “Pheasants,” Alpha’s memory of “her mother’s favorite photograph of her, taken when she was a child of five or six” is juxtaposed with her current situation as hopes are juxtaposed to reality. What might have been, symbolized by the attractive neighbor, differs from what is and makes her “capable of doing serious harm to her sons,” the physical manifestations of her constricted situation.
“The Beginning of Grief,” which ends the first part of Woiwode’s book, also uses optical imagery to describe the diminished world in which Martin, Alpha’s husband, lives after her death, “imprisoned within the sphere of his eye.”...
(The entire section is 2250 words.)