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...
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