The organization of Larry Woiwode’s autobiography is unconventional; instead of presenting a chronological, step-by-step account of his life, he presents a series of incidents from the past and present divided into two acts and an intermission. This pattern is suggested by the book’s subtitle, “A Season of Survival in Two Acts.” The main season of survival is the winter of 1996-1997, in which Larry Woiwode and his family must struggle not only with their isolation on a farm in southwestern North Dakota during savage storms and inclement weather, but also with learning (and overcoming) the inadequacies and vagaries of a newly installed outdoor wood-burning heater, which they had installed in hopes of becoming more self-sufficient. Interspersed throughout the first act are his early experiences: the meaning of his name; his birth in Carrington, North Dakota; his childhood in Sysketon, North Dakota; the early, traumatic death of his mother; and his move to Illinois.
The overall movement throughout the two juxtaposed narratives is from the past to the future, but past life and present struggle are linked by association or metaphor. The reader soon becomes used to the rhythm that propels each of the stories. Images in the present summon memories of the past: A tractor wheel in the rain recalls a summer of work on a farm. The title of the first act indicates its pulse: “Snow with Tints of Then.” It is a visual metaphor, with the tactile connotations that the word “snow” carries, as well as a linguistic play. The word “Snow” contains the word “now” and suggests that the storehouse of memory is an intricate puzzle box, the word nesting within the image, and the writer unpacking each carefully.
The second act’s title also reflects its structure: “Then with Tints of Snow.” It...
Larry Woiwode’s writing has been widely acclaimed, receiving many prizes and positive reviews, but his fiction has never really become part of the literary mainstream. This autobiography, Woiwode’s second work of nonfiction following Silent Passengers, a book on the biblical Book of Acts published in 1993, may well bring Woiwode a widened readership.
Woiwode relates his memoir from the vantage point of the winter of 1996-1997, whose cold and isolation are a natural spur to retrospection. Woiwode resettled as an adult in his childhood home of North Dakota. He lived as a young child around Sykeston, North Dakota, in the middle of the state measured on both north-south and east-west axes. Woiwode sketches the cultural and ethnic background of the community—founded in the late nineteenth century by an English entrepreneur (one of the many who were so influential in building up the High Plains west of the Mississippi River in this era), then in the twentieth century largely populated by Volgadeutsch (Germans who had settled in Russia for an extended period). As an adult, Woiwode moved to a 160-acre farm near Mott, North Dakota, on the Cannonball River in the southwestern corner of the state; his books are sold in the supermarket in Mott. Woiwode’s family traced its origin to German-speaking Silesia (now in the Czech Republic), although Woiwode was correctly informed by a love interest in college that the name is not German at all but Slavic. Sometimes spelled Voivode, it is frequently found across the history of Eastern Europe into the twentieth century as a title for a local chieftain. Woiwode’s family pronounces their name “y-WOODie,” far from what it would be in Eastern Europe, where the pronunciation would be closer to “voi-VODE.” Woiwode provides the reader with a sense of the background and temperament of his immediate forebears, including the early and traumatic death of his mother. All this is prelude to the harsh winter of 1996-1997.
Woiwode senses that the upcoming winter will be a hard one and arranges the delivery of a huge wood-burning furnace. In the midst of the furnace’s installation, Woiwode’s authorial voice flashes back to memories of his and his wife’s initial resettlement in North Dakota and their homeschooling of their four children—Joseph, Newlyn, Ruth, and Laurel. Woiwode provides not only detailed descriptions of his life and his community but also mechanical and engineering details of his new furnace and his electrical connections. These latter details give a sense of completeness to the scene, beyond any merely pastoral rusticity. When he says, “An openness like a field beyond a house, or a feeling of a field opening up, is a place I shouldn’t go, because a real field isn’t there,” he gives a glimpse not just of the physical reality but of the phenomenology of a field as well. A field is never totally present to the perceiver as he stands within it; the full reality of the idea of a field exists only when the field is perceived from a distance. Combined with Woiwode’s keenly observant descriptions of tools, fences, tractors, and snowdrifts, the book gives both a sense of what it is like on the Great Plains and what it is like to live, in a subjective sense, on the plains. Woiwode is grounded in North Dakota; he knows its history, its politics, its religion, its land, and its people.
The danger represented by the snowstorm sharpens Woiwode’s recollective powers as he muses over various areas of his family life and literary career. A consistent structure emerges in which Woiwode reflects on three kinds of relationships. The first kind is outward and nostalgic—his interchanges with his various literary mentors and colleagues. The second is inward and future-oriented—his relationship with his family and his attempts to develop his children in a certain way and mold their character in accordance with certain values. The third is parallel and takes place in the present, relating to his neighbors and fellow North Dakotans, with whom he shares struggles with the land and with life. This is the dimension of one’s life that one has the least control over—how the past is remembered and how the future is anticipated is partially up to the mind, but the present is open to fate. In a particularly affecting passage, Woiwode chronicles the death from cancer of his neighbor Valeria, which conjures the specter of his own mother’s death. He gives a wrenching description of decaying flowers at a funeral, an image of a cathartic coming-to-terms with death. Woiwode’s relationships with his neighbors are among the most interesting in the entire book. The inhabitants of the Cannonball River area are not folk rustics. They are self-aware and often highly educated people who are faithful and fit companions for Woiwode’s family during...
The title of Woiwode’s memoir, What I Think I Did, is a playful variation of the title of his 1969 novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think. The autobiographical work is structured in two parts separated by an intermezzo that functions more like a pause than a transition. The first section contains the author’s memories of his childhood, including the death of his mother; his changing relationships with his own children at various ages; his connection to the prairie and, by extension, to nature; and the development and nurturing of his craft as a writer.
Central to act 1 is Woiwode’s account of surviving the North Dakota winter of 1996, the most severe on record. That dark season provides an emotional backdrop upon which he projects memories that, like snowdrifts, shape and reshape themselves. Storm temperatures, wind chills reaching negative triple digits, are potentially lethal, Woiwode recounts. His purchase, construction, and maintenance of a wood-burning furnace to heat the buildings on his ranch become a metaphor for both maintaining human life and relationships and fueling the writing process. Woiwode struggles to assimilate the childhood loss of his mother with the direction of his adult life: “Her death, the calamitous event I’ve tried in different ways to put into the hands of fictional characters, hoping to leave it with them, sometimes returns.” Exploring the events surrounding her death and seeking the information denied him as a child, it is his inquisitiveness that characterizes Woiwode as a writer and propels him toward his chosen career. His search for answers both practical (How did she die?) and spiritual (Why did she die?) continues in act 2 as he explores his apprenticeship as a young writer in New York City.
Aptly titled “Intermission,” the middle of Woiwode’s autobiography offers a break between parts 1 and 2 and acts as a spatial divide between prairie and city. The words attach themselves to no single place, and the section is startling in its physical disconnectedness, so dissimilar to what comes before and after. A description of walking...