Taming Memory - the Fiction of Larry Woiwode

Article excerpt

J.B. Cheaney is an author who lives in the Ozarks of Missouri. Her second novel for young adults, The True Prince, will be published this fall by Knopf.

"When I was twelve," says Larry Woiwode, "and what happens to boys hadn't happened to me yet, I loved to walk alone." The prepubescent boy may have been clueless about a whole dimension of life, but on these occasions the ground, the sky, and most of all the trees became life, suffused with a presence he recognized even then. It drew a song from him, barely articulate but deeply felt: "Oh beautiful trees! Oh sky above me! Oh earth beneath my feet!"

Fifty years passed, and much that can happen to a man, both of loss and gain, happened to Woiwode. He acquired a family, a reputation, a home-- but sometimes a core of detachment and cynicism would ignite within him, "so bitter it could burn holes in the air." During one such period, his wife asked him to pray for the family. "Sure, I thought, sure, I'll pray, and lit into the prayer with such anger a hole indeed appeared to burn open to a presence I'd forgotten or abandoned." It breached the moment, quenching the anger, and the prayer became a song- -much more articulate and informed than the one sung to the trees of his boyhood but directed to the same place and answered in the same way. Words became flesh and dwelled in him, with such glowing power he couldn't sleep that night. The experience bent backward like a contortionist and connected with the boy under the trees. It was the pattern of his life's work--language conquering time, history embedded within each present moment.

His ancestors were German--his great-grandfather Karl, as a boy, was wrapped in a feather bed and smuggled out of Silesia in order to escape the draft. Charles Woiwode anglicized his first name but not the last. Fortunately, in North Dakota, where he settled, the other eastern European immigrants understood that Woiwode is pronounced WYE-woody.

Larry--not a diminutive but his given name--was born October 30, 1941, the second child in a family that expanded to three sons and two daughters. Religion was woven into the fabric of their lives. His father, Everett, was a devout Catholic; Audrey, his mother, was raised Protestant but later converted. Both parents were schoolteachers, but Everett did manual labor during summer vacations. While the boys were growing up in Sykeston, North Dakota, he served the local school as athletic coach, teacher, and superintendent. When Larry was nine, his father uprooted the family and moved them to Illinois, an event that, when he looked back on it, seemed to bend his life in two. He would later write in What I Think I Did: "Memory isn't a pilot but a backseat driver who wants control. Story is the pilot, and we follow its course through the present, hearing memory's nagging knowledge of the weathers and roadblocks of the past. ... It holds a lifetime store of every angle and declination of experience and sensation and fact we know, besides its tinting of all those."

All fiction writers are aware of the constant intrusion of memory, but Woiwode was spiked by one memory in particular. His mother, who never adjusted to the move, lost the will to fight her recurrent kidney problems. On January 30, 1951, she died.

The event created a simmering sense of terror in her second son: "My mother was dead and had died away from home, in a hospital, of a disease I had never been able to fathom or my father had never been able to explain or hadn't wanted to, so I had come to feel that my awful thoughts of her, years of them, caused her to die."

The family rearranged itself after its center dropped out. Everett worked odd jobs for a while before going back into teaching, sharing the children's upbringing with various relatives. Larry spent summers with his maternal grandparents in Minnesota, later hiring himself out for farmwork. …