What I’m Going to Do, I Think, 1969
Beyond the Bedroom Wall: A Family Album, 1975
Poppa John, 1981
Born Brothers, 1988
Indian Affairs, 1992
The Neumiller Stories, 1989
Silent Passengers: Stories, 1993
Poetry North: Five North Dakota Poets, 1970 (with Richard Lyons, Thomas McGrath, John R. Milton, and Antony Oldknow)
Even Tide, 1977
Aristocrat of the West: The Story of Harold Schafer, 2000
What I Think I Did: A Season of Survival in Two Acts, 2000
Larry Alfred Woiwode (WI-wood-ee) grew up in Sykeston, North Dakota, a predominantly German settlement in a rugged, often forbidding, terrain. It is this area that was probably the source of the author’s appreciation of the effect of nature upon the individual. When he was ten years old, Woiwode and his family moved to Manito, Illinois, another evocatively Midwestern environment that fostered his descriptive powers. He attended the University of Illinois intermittently between 1960 and 1964 but failed to complete his B.A. After leaving with an associate of arts degree in rhetoric he married Carol Ann Patterson in 1965 and moved to New York, where he supported his family with freelance writing, publishing in The New Yorker and other periodicals while he worked on two novels simultaneously.
Woiwode’s first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, appeared in 1969 and won the William Faulkner Foundation Award as the most notable first novel of 1969; it brought him immediate and favorable critical attention. An absorbing study of two newlyweds, the title accentuates the protagonists’ self-doubt and indecision as each contemplates the responsibility of couples and parents in an age lacking a transcendent faith in an all-wise, benevolent God. As an intense, psychological study of two troubled individuals, What I’m Going to Do, I Think stands in marked contrast to Woiwode’s later work in both narrative strategy and characterization, but it shares with all Woiwode’s output a commitment to portraying the value of “walking by faith, not by sight” in human relationships, of trusting one’s parents, spouse, and children to help one navigate through a hostile world.
Woiwode’s second novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, is an expansive, comic novel that reads as a discontinuous montage of events, images, and personality. Published in 1975, but actually begun earlier than his first published novel, Beyond the Bedroom Wall is an engaging homage to the seemingly evaporating nuclear and extended families of mid-twentieth century America. True to its subtitle, A Family Album, Woiwode parades before the reader sixty-three different characters before the beginning of chapter 3. Critics have remarked upon the sentimental, “old-fashioned” quality Woiwode achieves in this family chronicle and his eloquent evocation of once-embraced, now-lamented values–values that often cannot bear scrutiny “beyond the bedroom wall,” beyond the support of a nurturing family intimacy. The critic and novelist John Gardner placed Woiwode in the company of some of literature’s great epic novelists–among them Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevski–for his rejection of fashionable pessimism and his affirmation of seeking one’s dreams without sacrificing family life. Woiwode’s eye for the details of daily life enables him to move through four generations, creating an authentic and vividly realized family history.
In the 1970’s, while working on a book of poems and a third novel, Woiwode held teaching posts at various colleges, including the University of Wisconsin at Madison and Wheaton College in Illinois. The collection of poems, Even Tide, which appeared in 1977, received modest but positive critical reception for its informal, conversational quality and its diversity of concrete religious imagery. Poppa John, published in 1981, is more a novella than a novel and was judged by most critics as less successful because its title character, a soap-opera actor summarily dismissed and out of a job at Christmastime, is never fully realized; Poppa John contains some of Woiwode’s most lyrical scenes, however.
After 1983 Woiwode served as a faculty member at the State University of New York at Binghamton and completed work on another novel. In Born Brothers, published in 1988, Woiwode returns to the characters introduced in his most successful work, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, the Neumiller family. In some ways a sequel, Born Brothers chronicles the lives of Charles and Jerome Neumiller and their sometimes stormy sibling rivalry, this time with middle brother Charles himself as narrator rather than younger brother Tim. Here Woiwode has revitalized the relationship between memory and imagination that he evoked in the earlier narrative, frankly exhorting the reader to regard remembrance of what was as a healthier and more healing endeavor than fantasizing about what might be.
Woiwode continues to mine these elements in subsequent novels and short stories. The collection The Neumiller Stories, makes use of unpublished and reworked chapters of Beyond The Bedroom Wall, expanding the life of Charles Neumiller and others. Indian Affairs, continues with the lives of the two main characters in his first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, this time probing deeply especially into both Chris Van Eenanam’s Native American roots and the spiritual awakening he undergoes. The collection of short stories Silent Passengers shows Woiwode at his lyrical best. A new turn in his output came with his book Acts, 1993, a study of the Acts of the Apostles from a writerly perspective. Much biographical insight into Woiwode’s writing and religious commitments can be found here; even more appears in his 2000 memoir, What I Think I Did.
Understanding Woiwode’s writing involves recognizing the essentially religious character of his narratives and their thematic structure. Woiwode rejects the notion that there can be legitimate novels of “ideas” that do not devolve into mere propaganda; he chooses to handle this problem not by creating characters who spout philosophical soliloquies but by creating authentically ordinary characters who settle comfortably into the mundane world that is life.
As a novelist Woiwode stands apart from most of his contemporaries in refusing to drown his characters in the angst-ridden excesses that became conventional in the late twentieth century American novel. His characters are not helpless victims of their times but participants in them. The characters in Woiwode’s Beyond the Bedroom Wall and Born Brothers recognize that the answers to life’s dilemmas are found in securing trust in personal friendships and family relationships. Woiwode’s willingness to reaffirm these traditional values and to point toward a transcendent moral order grounded in biblical faith makes him unusual in his time.