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 covers Woiwode’s college career at the University of Illinois at Urbana; his success there both as a writer and actor; his move to New York and his initial success with the stories he published in The New Yorker magazine; his friendship with his editor, William Maxwell; his marriage; the birth of his first child; and the acceptance of his first novel. The first act ended with a question grounded in the present, “How can I live like this?”; the second act ends with a declarative affirmation, “I’m launched,” as both his family and his literary career take flight. The rhythm of the temporal discontinuities is much slower in this section: In the first section, the past and present seem more equally matched, more in search of a balance, while in this section, the past quietly asserts its gravitic pull.
This section also satisfies the reader who is hoping to glimpse the more famous personages that often flit through memoirs, literary celebrities such as John Updike, Truman Capote, Eudora Welty, Robert Lowell, and James Wright. Woiwode includes what he terms an appropriately Borgesian moment with Jorge Luis Borges, and a meeting with a young actor at the start of his career, Robert De Niro. Woiwode had considered an acting career, having had collegiate success in the roles of Feste in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: Or, What You Will (pr. c. 1600-1602) and the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard II (pr. c. 1595-1596), but when he moved to New York, he found that his skill in acting was congruent with, and perhaps even akin to, the talents of impersonation and skin inhabiting that are necessary to the fiction writer’s art.
Charles Shattuck at the University of Illinois had introduced Woiwode first to the works and then to the person of William Maxwell, fiction editor at The New Yorker, who becomes Woiwode’s literary father and “kindness in the flesh.” In a particularly symbolic act, Woiwode house-sits for Maxwell while working on his first novel, his only real duty to keep Maxwell’s beloved roses trimmed. Woiwode learns through Maxwell that fiction has its own underpinnings in the “real” that no fact checker can uncover or discover.
The final juxtaposition of the book implicitly indicates the importance of family to Woiwode’s life: In the past, his first child is born, while in the present, he agonizes over the wounding of his son in a freak gun accident. Like the best autobiographies, Woiwode’s gives pleasure in two ways—by displaying to readers the inner life of someone other than themselves and by linking them to their universal life.