a u t o b i o g r a p h y 

l a r r y  w o i w o d e



It wasn’t my head or even my hat I forgot but my gloves. This habit of getting words in lines on scraps of paper with pens or pencils or at a keyboard (where I now tap) has my hands so used to the task they turn transparent. I hardly see them. So gloves don’t register on the drive to Elgin – four on gravel, fifteen on blacktop – until I’m almost there and glance at the seat.

A checkbook where my gloves should be, surfaces edged with a crystalline light that shimmers everywhere from the snow-layered landscape like fire on foil. Just as when you drive up a glaciated mountain above clouds, struggling with the effort to see, so, too, here, you struggle and blink. There is no pollution and the sky is so purged of clouds on winter days that a silver-blue line grips the white horizon, welding the light in place: North Dakota.

In its brilliance a car is a greenhouse.

My mind is off on a race for the right arrangement to a set of paragraphs for a commissioned piece I have in my head. After thirty years of this I’m at the stage where I have to run to the bank once a week to hurry in a sum or shift another small one to keep an account above zero – a nuisance, not a deterrent, and the pressure of that sends an afterthought rolling in: writer’s hands extension of mind, so good at unpacking the purl prose forms they’re feelers for words, burning to invisibility, sun on snow.

I’m trying to write a memoir that gets beneath the self-consciousness of self. And as so often happens when I have work on the planks, I hear, at the border of sleep, the first sentence for it. The rest will follow like a curtain of snow threading its way over plowed fields toward me. Or that’s the optimistic trend my thought tends to take and sometimes passages do fall in place in a cascade of inner recognition but more often the work is like shoving a plow single-handed through three-foot drifts.

I’ve spent most of my life listening, and if I have an enduring trait, that’s it. But the hour always arrives when the listening has to be translated into words.


In the German-Russian village where I grew up my name was normal. Woiwode. I liked its look and sound, those vowels and wings and its trick of pronunciation – Y-woodie. The village was Sykeston, North Dakota, after Richard Sykes, from Cheshire, England. “In 1883 he established the town of Sykeston, erecting a store building and large elevator,” a history from 1900 states. “Mr. Sykes retains large land interests in Foster, Wells, Stutsman, and LaMoure counties. . . . He has done much toward the settlement of those counties and has much land still to sell at three to ten dollars per acre. Mr. Sykes has made, at a cost of four thousand dollars, a beautiful lake within the town site of Sykeston, which is named Hiawatha Lake, and is eighteen feet deep in places and two miles long and about a fourth of a mile wide. The lake will be stocked with fish and boats will be supplied and the place become a summer resort.”

It never became that, though people fish on it from boats and the temperature can be 100 in the shade on the 4th of July. When I was growing up the influence of Sykes was evident in an attentiveness to the English language, an influence that also came out of the British culture at Winnipeg. But by the forties Sykeston was largely German immigrants, some of them first-generation German-Russians – Germans the Czarist government persuaded to settle in southern Russia and then (mostly through the Bolshevik revolution) misused or purged. They spoke a yiddishie low German, interlaced with Russian, so that “no,” for instance, came out not nein or nyet but net.

So Woiwode went well with them but elsewhere caused a clamor. I got a glimpse of the generational effect of this when our daughter, Newlyn (Welsh for “new spring”) was three and people would ask her name. “Woiwode,” she would say, pronouncing it Y-woodie, as the family has for generations, and then she would spell out each letter, as she heard us do, as if each were essential, too, to its pronunciation.

An impediment to the simplest meeting.

Wood, the name I use for restaurant reservations, would be simpler, and for a while I considered a change to that. But for the sake of my father and grandfathers and the vowels and distinction I first saw in it, I suspect, I never did. The name is Slavic, maybe Romanian, according to a scholar who worked on Romania’s national dictionary.

“Dracula is the Voivoda of Valachia!” he said, happy to hit me with that. I had an inkling the name was Slavic, to bequeath such Tartar cheekbones, but the ancestors I heard about were German, or German-speaking.

Then the one who set me straight showed up. It was the spring of my junior year at the University of Illinois in Urbana, and I was studying the metaphysical poets, trying to place Marvell in the viewfinder of his mower poems, as in


When Juliana comes, and she,

What I do to the grass, does to my thoughts and me,


– scything apart the poet’s state as a scythe scythes down grass. As I meditated on that I almost bumped into a tall woman beside a twiggy hedge, her arms in an X over the books at her chest, smiling at me in amusement. She invited me to the noisy basement cafeteria of the campus YMCA, called the K-Room, for a cup of coffee – I was headed there anyway, just down from the hedge – and once we sat in a beige and orange booth, with mugs on the table between us, she said, “More embarrassing than asking you for coffee, Larry, is how it shames me to say this: Will you screw me?”

Her fingers were white around her mug but she smiled, baring lipstick-flecked teeth in her mannish lower jaw – the fiery German actress I had watched in scenery-eating roles in campus productions. “I asked my divine director of late who to ask, after he said no – he’s too gay to get involved, he told me – and he said, ‘Woiwode.’ So sorry about your awful name, love.”

My lungs went flat, I did, at her accent that had a tinge of Brit onstage but was the accent of the women of Sykeston. My response is a blank. Later she came to the room I rented at the front of a private house, carrying a shopping bag, and sat on my only furniture besides a bed and desk – a Victorian couch with a coronet of maple trim across its back. She was an East German refugee who made it to England, then found an Illinois businessman willing to pay her passage to America and, with his wife, adopt her. Then he started having her at his office when she was fifteen.

She pulled a banana from her shopping bag and peeled it halfway down, in strips, her blond hair drawn from her domed forehead in a pompadour, a Nordic Doris Day of a basketball height. She had an entire bunch of bananas in the bag, it turned out, and after the first she removed her coat; the next, her jacket; blouse, though this didn’t seem planned, judging from her nervousness and the grapes – also in the bag – which she ripped apart and held to me in a trembling hand.

She leaned back on the couch, near the end of the bed where I sat, its heavy upholstery raying around her hips in emerald wrinkles, and then stood in heels and paced past my knees as if she were onstage, one hand over a hip as she turned away, then pivoted back, her face streaked white with the emotion that was her forte and cried, “Larry!”

I put a finger to my lips to remind her of the quiet I must maintain, since the elderly folk I rented from sat in rockers on the other side of my wall, adopting a patient rock, it seemed, for my first university infraction.

Her face was so close I saw a glaze like greasepaint over the subtle pimples on her forehead, and she whispered in the accent of Sykeston, “Larry, poor fellow, Vyvoodie is Polish! It is no name a Cherman would want – a lousy name! It was a Voivoda that led the bastard Huns into Chermany, their chief! You do not know the ugly affront it is to a Cherman woman who hears Vyvoodie – they are now frigging little petty officials over there! – or anybody who knows their history! How truly evil were these Vojvodas! Evil, evil Huns, not Chermans! Read Sienkiewicz, love.”

At anything untoward I went silent, listening as if my life depended on it, and for me it was an affront merely to hear her say “love.” Then she turned grave and teary and told me about the businessman in detail.


I was twenty and I mention this not to mesmerize you into the goggle-eyed mindlessness pornographers like to incite, nor to warn away anyone who meets a Woiwode, but as a cautionary tale for my children. Hear! The Woiwodes and their interrelated clans, over the generations I’ve known them (now three, with a glance in opposite directions into a fourth at both ends) have been susceptible to sexual mishap, sexual misadventure, sexual excess, sexual sin – however you see it, no matter their age. So children, wherever you are when you read this or remember it, heed me.

And this: it wasn’t until two years later that the conclusion to her visit came, in New York, when the wisest and most clairvoyant of modern storytellers, William Maxwell, said, “If you sit or stand still in one place long enough, even on a street corner in New York, your story will walk up to you.”


My story is partly about the “Old Country” of every immigrant agrarian family, plus the otherworld of Europe, and how I was spared the seduction into its centuries-old maze when a Woiwode sailed to the New World in 1867. Then a century later I encounter a young woman from the Old Country who has been seduced and worse by the New and so seems set on another round of seduction – prey to our ancient names. Those layers are at the heart of the story I know.

Woiwodes are susceptible to such, I said, as others are susceptible, not synonymous with. They also tend to be thoughtful, if not intelligent, and slow to rouse to anger, though once angry they burn red hot, often at injustice. They have served as teachers, federal officers, finish carpenters and plasterers, farmers; in medicine, in the church, the military, and nature conservancy. Younger generations are in banking, vet medicine, nursing, real estate, federal inspection; they oversee commercial building projects, are managers, accountants, in law enforcement, or guarding you against computer scams. Linked to them is the Thiel family of my Grandma Woiwode, known for its scholars and priests. Only one of all of them has stuck to writing.

As for the inheritance from my mother’s line, the Johnstons, from the Norwegians on her mother’s side, the Hyerdahl branch, is the adventurer Thor, of the Kon Tiki voyage and book of that title, and on the Halvorson—

Well! a great-aunt exclaimed, scandalized to read in a genealogy she received from a relative in Norway that a male ancestor “drowned in a vat of beer.”

What was so scandalous to her was how this was written right on the genealogy for anybody to see!

From what I know about a tendency on that side, I doubt his death was accidental. He was drinking up the vat and tripped. And next the Scots-Irish-Welsh of the Johnston half who tended, like many from the edges of the UK, toward garrulousness and religious extremism. One great-uncle could barely walk by the age of forty from spending so much time on his knees in prayer – for most of the rest of his family, as it turns out. So from my mother’s side that, and the related weakness of a diabetic strain; and from both branches an excellent or else a shaky sense of handling money, along with the compulsive way a Woiwode – most every one a teetotaler – will empty a glass of water in great quick gulps, as if a beleaguered ancestor died of thirst.

Again that.


Then this:

Voivode (Voi voud). Forms: a. 6 voy-, voiuoda, voivoda, voyvode, voivode, -wode, woywode [ad. Bulg. and Serb. vojvoda, Czech. vojevoda, Pol. wojewoda, Russ. voevoda, whence also Roum. voevoda, -vod, mod. L. voivoda, mod. Gr. boeboda (e)] = Vaivode

a. 1570 in Hakluyt Voy. (1599) I. 401 When we should have deliuered him with the rest of his fellowes vnto the Voiuodaes officers. Ibid., Kneze Yoriue your Majesties Voiuoda at Plasco. 1599 Ibid. II.i.198 Voyuoda of Bogdania and Valachia.

b. 1614 Selden Titles Honor 249 That of Vaiuod or Uoiuod, vsd in other parts of the Eastern Europe, being, I think, a Slauonig or Windish word. 1686 W.Hedges Diary [Halk. Soc.] I. 232 I went to visit and present ye Voyvode and Musellim of Diarbekeer. 1833 R.Pinkerton Russia 111 Now but an insignificant-looking place, though formerly the residence of a Voivod. 1869 Tozer Highl.Turkey I.141 The protectorate ..passed into the hands of the Hospodars or Voyvodes of Wallachia and Moldavia. 1884 W.Carr Montenegro 22 By repeated efforts the voivode maintains with difficulty a position on the coast.

g. 1847 S.Austin Ranke’s Hist. Ref. III. 31 He encouraged Francis I. to keep alive the agitation in Germany,..and to support the Woiwode of Translyvania. 1847 Mrs. A. Kerr tr. Ranke’s Hist. Servia xvi. 303 Amongst those executed before Belgrade were venerable Senators..and aged and renowned Woiwodes. 1868 Daily Tel. I Sept., To be a prince of its park, lord of its lake, ruler of its river, and woiwode of its woods.

attrib. 1888 E.Gerald Land Beyond Forest xxxiii. II. 84 Only such Tziganes are supposed to be eligible as are descended from a Woywod family.

Or so the OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY says, while next to it WEBSTER’S THIRD states:

vai vode\‘vai,vod\ or voi vode \‘voi-\ n -s [vaivode fr. NL & It vaivoda, fr. obs. Hung vajvoda, fr. Serb & Slovene, vojvoda, fr. OBulg vojevoda, lit., chieftain, fr. voinu warrior, soldier (akin to Lith vyti to pursue, hunt) + voditi to lead; voivode fr. Russ voevoda fr. OBulg--more at VIM]:a military commander or governor of a town or province in various Slavic countries.

While back of all that I hear the voice of an officious recorder at Ellis Island saying to his table-side mate near the “In” door, “It would be the same, I suspect, as the way these people pronounce wegtable soup.”



The beginnings of memory are eidetic, pictorial, images of the essence of a day. No language attached. Then a long mid-phase of learning. Then age, with new avenues the mind lays down. These accumulate fast. With the growing errands the mind must run the avenues that go the deepest, become the most important. Gloves and scarves disappear. Or the weather of the inner world draws me in so far it’s hard to keep the outer in sight, keep a toehold, a grip on it.

As it has been this winter, merely keeping abreast. Snow to the eaves of buildings, which is bad enough, but the worst is the wind and the way it magnifies every aspect of the cold. It wears at my wife, pouring in streaming weight over the north of the house, the wall where our six-foot headboard stands, with a force I feel will bear us off in the night. Then strikes in wallops that jerk shrieks from nails as the bedsprings tremble under us in our suspended sleeplessness.

So no gloves. The castigation I condemn myself with pours through me in neon: You should have known better. “Yes,” I say, thinking of the morning we drove early to the polling place, a bulky brick cube trimmed with rows of vertical windows that gave it the appearance of gaining an extra story in mock surprise – the county courthouse, set on a hill in town. We watched a county employee, a woman, use a snowblower to clear the walk to its double doors, a spangled fountain of snow arching from the candy-red machine across a blue spruce that reached to the second story – a patriotic vision of sorts (we were on our way to vote, after all; November 7, 1996) but one I should have taken as a warning: that much snow on the ground before December.

And now this winter stupor in the greenhouse of a car, in the new year of ‘97. Twenty below for a week so when the sun appears and cooks the snow to a dazzle you enter a daze similar to the one from a dream that has held you under too long, the dangerous state that undoes polar explorers.


When I wake, the teller with my check and deposit slip says, “Do you think we’re going to get that terrible storm?”

I’m almost offended – so absorbed I didn’t listen to the car radio, and now this affable woman I enjoy talking with asking about a storm, after what we’ve been through?

In a voice so tremulous and phlegm-rattly it feels I haven’t used it all day, “No” comes out like a strangled moo – Nooo. “No,” I say, normal. “No, I don’t think so.”

I’m wearing a light jacket and flimsy cap and realize her question may be her way of warning me, since natives (and of this village especially) can be that politely oblique. With her knowledge of the details of the financial state of everybody county-wide and her ability to face them every day, she’s an artful expert at the mode. Her square shoulders shift in an interrogatory way, as if to ask if she’s gone too far, then she pauses in her count of cash and studies me from eyes magnified by her glasses, head on.

My look lets her know nothing has changed between us.

Outside, exhaust from cars and pickups plumes both sides of the street, all the vehicles running, doors unlocked, not a person at the wheel of any. I run to the store and buy food, sensing a hurry there, as if others know something I don’t, and on my way to the car streamers of snow start plastering every surface facing west, as my face is, and I think, Twenty miles! And her with no wood.

I decide to see the seasonal worker who helps supply our wood. I’ll encourage him to deliver a load in the best way – drive to the abandoned farm where his house-trailer sits and hand him cash. We’ve cut every dead tree on our farm and moved on, with an absentee owner’s permission, to a stand of cottonwoods two miles down our snow-clogged road.

What we call our farm or ranch, neighbors refer to as a garden plot – 160 acres. It is small in comparison to the spreads that extend for miles over the roll of our all but treeless landscape, with a sky that booms pure blue to the horizon on all sides, so that even a traveler like Peter Matthiessen, when he got in his genteel elegance from a car in our lane, turned in a slow circle, to take it all in.

He was working on what would be IN THE SPIRIT OF CRAZY HORSE – later pulled from bookstores by a lawsuit brought by the Governor of South Dakota – and I had driven him from the Bismarck airport a hundred miles south and west to our farm, below the Cannonball River Custer followed on his way to the Little Big Horn.

Matthiessen paused and stared at our garden with a pool of water at its far corner from the spring melt (after the only other winter with as much snow as this), and said in the mildly Oxonian accent he and George Plimpton picked up at the boarding school they attended together, “You’ve got shorebirds there.” He pointed to the glare of water, the shallow garden pool. “I do believe that one is a godwit. I’ll be. Do you have a pair of binocs?”


The gentle man who keeps us in wood, a three-hundred-pound biker with a full curling blond beard and a blond pony tail, lives north of the next town, New Leipzig – one of those Dakota settlements on the other side of the railroad tracks running parallel to the highway, so small that from your car you can see down three blocks of a main street to the fields at its far end.

But before I’m there a wind hits and streaks of snow revolve to the horizontal and double in volume, a white-out. I touch the brakes, blinded, our aging Lincoln seeping cold. I reach for my gloves and the bare spot, added to the storm’s onslaught, confuses me so much I swing off too soon, onto the wrong road. But I keep going, a trait my wife translates as bullheadedness, but that registers in me as dislocation. I usually have my directions right and always imagine that if I drive farther, I’ll reach the stability of the right place and the panic pressing me on will stop, an awful circle. My father did this, as he aged, and I hated it. Most men do. I can turn west in a mile, I figure. Land here is laid out in mile squares or “sections,” and the boundaries of each, by law, should be roads but lately are so seldom traveled it seems stagecoaches left the last ruts.

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 the roadblocks of the past. Memory’s aim is to be there, leap the present, persuade us the past is identical to the future, prophetic, our one seat of reference – those blank spaces we slip from to find we’ve been suspended in the past. That suspension is memory’s power; memory is imagination. It holds a lifetime store of every angle and declination of experience and sensation and fact we know, besides its coloring of all of those. What people call a memoir is an attempt to tame its outrageous takeovers into paths we tiptoe down toward truth.

The temptation is to deny the demands of the past and switch on the autopilot of the rational. In men that rational preserve, the miniature speck of it, assumes a superiority that recoils from the depths that women intuitively inhabit, so men are often “lost,” unable to set aside rationality for common sense: stop and ask that guy how to get there. A woman’s plaint.

In the film 2001 you enter a primitive gruffness, man’s zone, and are suddenly lifted into a sense, before the moonshot or shuttle, of the infinitude of space and travel through it. Then after the computer’s takeover, that scene of a pilot aging down through time in a translucent room like a projection of his rationality, able only to rise from bed to check his face in a mirror for the effects of age – suspended in space inside a consciousness continuing forever, as it felt, so that I was turned inside out and seemed to be the fetus heading off in a diminishing dot, my span as brief as a breath on that mirror – though I didn’t at first recognize this riptide of subliminal effect.

I saw it in Manhattan with my wife and a friend I once rented a house with in college; he was in the city (after studying at an Orthodox yeshiva in Brooklyn and dropping out) to finish an advanced degree in Math, and it was the crystalline architecture of his mind I partly viewed the film through that impressed it on me as it was, I think. Afterward we stopped in a bar for drinks and then went out to the car my father-in-law had given my wife when she left home, a Volkswagen Beetle. The street where it was parked was deserted, as if an extraterrestrial holocaust had occurred; the only other person was a young man walking with the bent-ahead haste of carrying out a grudge, and I gunned the car toward him and kept it on course until I hit the curb a few feet back, causing him to fling up his arms in the headlights in a parody of horror – as if the film’s sense of the insignificance of life permitted this.

In those subterranean reaches women are attuned to – a molecular intuition they seem to pick up from the air – my wife was crying “No, No!” the second I hit the gas. And it isn’t until now, over thirty years in rebound from the curb, that the right response occurs. Forgive me.


Now in this storm, snow sailing in from the west is forming finger drifts across the road, or so I see when I can see, and once I rumble over a few of these I realize I have to turn back. But no place. Earlier snows brim both ditches, bulked up by plows, all joining the falling snow in swirls, and then through the blue-gray blur I see a stab of light and to my right a mailbox goes by too quick for me to stop. I’m in a turn I must negotiate with every sense alert, a banked ascent, and in a stunning white-out I see it’s a butte, a steep one, and I’m climbing it.

Easy to turn on a grade, once at its top, I think. Use the downhill slope. I hit a pillow drift with a wallop, then another, and the car, far from the top, slows and starts going sidewise, tires giving off the rubbery warble of a spin, and I hear the rhythms of a Roethke poem – of his driving alone down a long peninsula, the road lined with snow-covered growth, a dry snow ticking the windshield, the road going from blacktop to rubble and ending in a rut where the car stalls, churning in a snowdrift until its headlights go out. Which is where I am, at a dead stop, though the engine and headlights and heater work – so far, anyway.


Then it comes as before, the blankness of black velour, a midnight sky without a star. A point of light appears. It travels across the void, leaving a trail fine as frayed filament. It joins similar trails, millions of them, but the whole host do not lighten the dark an iota. The trails travel through ages, down through who knows how many millennia, until stars appear, the sun and moon, the earth in its aqua symmetry and froth of clouds, and then liquid splashes over a floor as everything rushes forward to a burning marvel I know is light.

Voices are raised, shouts. An icy grip surrounds my forehead and my mother screams.

Push! comes the shout. “Push! The hardest part is over!” My ears gain airy freedom and in the replaying of this I feel a tug of sympathy for my mother; she bore me and will bear me through time, though not long – nine years and three months, to be exact. But the flash takes too long to catch. The simple fact is I was born in Carrington, North Dakota, into the dark hour of 6:00 AM, on October 30, 1941.

My name is Larry, not Lawrence (for those who try to improve on her), an irritating diminutive common at the time, perhaps because of Olivier, a Lawrence called Larry by admirers. So I used L when I began to publish, but Larry was congenial to the mid-part of life, as she probably knew, though tough to fix on a fellow in his late fifties. So I often want to return to where I began as a writer, L.

An undeniable fact about the cast present at my birth is this: I’m the only one of them living, able to slip into the salty smell of blood on her naked heat. As all newborns do at birth, as ours did, my wife’s hand across a stained and miniature back where ribs fine as wishbones expanded and fell with the panting breaths of all of our four.

The least trustworthy of the better attributes of any mind is memory.



As I sort the first images from my past that feel authentic I’m at an upstairs window of a house on my Grandma and Grandpa Johnston’s farm, not quite four, because my grandparents move before I’m that age. Out the window I see our family car. It is squeezed between the house and a granary, as if wedged there, and perhaps I do the wedging, because my parents are inside, trying to leave. An internal picture of them in its front seat as the motor starts causes me to yell, “No! I shanged my mind!”

I’m supposed to stay with my grandparents for a spell of days, as my parents travel, but now I feel I can’t. Somebody calls or runs to the car and my mother’s younger sisters, Yvonne and Elaine, enact for their family audience “I shanged my mind!” “He shanged his mind, is that what he said!” “Yes, shanged his mind!”

Like all my mother’s family, they are flawless mimics, and every time one or the other sees me, I hear “Have you shanged your mind?” – a question that plagues me when it rises in their voices as I work through yet another revision of a story I told my wife was finished. But then I found that The New Yorker had a phrase to handle this – when a piece was not only done and taken, but the fixing and editing was done, too; then it was “Done and done.”

The only time Yvonne didn’t mention my change of mind was the last time I saw her, in 1992, when she was gray-haired and drinking “gray panthers” – vodka with grapefruit juice – in her brother’s apartment in St. Paul, there from L. A. with her husband to visit. She was carrying the cancer she would die from in a year, though none of us knew it, not even her. But I sensed a reserve in her (and not only for neglecting to say “shange,” out of charity, as I took it, because she seemed the one changed), and then I saw in her face, not in her eyes or mouth but the bones of her face, the face of my mother, dead for forty years.


Before I get out of the car to check where I am on the slope, as I would with gloves and warm clothes, I start backing toward what appears to be a place to turn. But when I revolve the wheel to enter it, the car slides. I touch the brakes, it slides worse, and I remember how, in the letup in the weather early in the week, first a thaw came and then a rain. The wind has scoured this area of the slope to ice, I see as I get out, then go into the tottering running in place that’s so funny to others the second before you fall on ice. But I don’t.

The nose of the car rakes northwest, its rear tires at the edge of the drifted ditch. From the trunk I get a grain scoop I put there for an emergency. But the snow is so hard I have to stomp on the shoulder of the shovel to get it to bite in. During the terrible cold, as winds shifted from one quarter to another, my son pointed out how the snow got worn to grains, like polished sandy quartz, and it has the weighty heft of sand – its corrugated waves a solid as sculpture, the sastrugi Byrd encountered in Antarctica.

Meanwhile freshly falling snow, clumpy and damp from the day’s warmth, plasters the side of the car and clings in a film to my flimsy jacket, while the wind whistles the temperature down a degree a minute. My hands are numb, fingers like wood, the last of the blood in them, as it feels, about to squirt out my nails. I jam the scoop in the snow and jump in the car – still running.

You should have known better. The clunky, useless scoop, no gloves, staying on the wrong road, then starting up this hill. I should have brought the pickup; should have backed straight down, even if I couldn’t stop, till I was on a flat; should have been more charitable when my wife called the other week to say she was backing out a drive and slid on ice into a ditch and, once she was home, I should have foregone my lecture on how to manage on ice, all before I went out to look – she’d hooked the steel post of a highway sign on the way down and scraped one whole side of the new finish we had a body shop apply a month before – and then I went back in and said, “We might as well drive the damn thing over a cliff.”

“Dad!” our son said. “That’s no way to talk!”

I’m not about to panic but I know now why people gamble their lives in storms like this – simply to walk out of the situation, probably in a mindless daze from car heat, as I am. Then they flounder in the featureless landscape and get lost. Farmers once tied ropes to their waists to go out for chores and then sometimes didn’t make it back.

I get out and dig and my mind fills with Ruth, in this helpless tumble of our children I experience every hour – Newlyn, Joseph, Ruth, Laurel, that order. Ruth always busy at a task; Newlyn, too, but with her, the oldest, a sense of how her tasks were duties to hold the family together, when I wasn’t – Ruth so geared up she’s a power we can’t identify, though she likes to help with what she likes. As when I was digging holes for a hitching post for Newlyn (nine years older than Joseph, eleven over Ruth) and Ruth, four, pulled piles of dirt back with her hands, helping, and when I was down three feet with the post-hole digger she asked me to put her in the hole, so I lowered her until only her eyes and a crown of white-blond hair showed, and she giggled and whooped and had me call her mother to see.

I dig till my ears feel they’re going up in flame, then hear a deep-throated sound like a tractor in the distance. An effect of the freeze? Snow is driving from the north now and might have caused a hallucination with its sudden shift that’s subsumed the last light. I’ve lived in Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Chicago, St. Paul, a manor on the Hudson, in suburban and rural places from New York State to Michigan and Illinois, and now, in this corner of North Dakota, I stand on what could as well be the last hill at the end of the world. I can see nothing but white with white over it and more white pouring in.


My great-grandfather Charles was smuggled out of Upper Silesia in 1867 by his father, John, because he was at the legal age for military conscription in Germany, ten. John wrapped him in a feather bed and carried him over his shoulder onto a ship bound for America, and Charles said he was sat on and shoved around during the journey, but had to keep silent – a trait he passed on.

And, oh, how he wore away inner layers, bright and varied as a jawbreaker’s, as I imagine, to the proximity of exposure, not knowing which “I” was I, when under one color was another of encasement, invention, projection, stillness.

Charles managed for his father on this side, filing a homestead claim in Dakota Territory, in 1881, before North and South Dakota were states. That came in 1889. The homestead was in the Red River Valley, three-hundred miles from our present farm, which is not a family place, as some think. My wife and I are children of the sixties, or anyway we were under thirty at its peak – armchair dreamers of an ecological Eden. We would find a place in the country and by our crops and animals and a system for generating electricity would become self-sufficient, returning organic balance to the land, for its sake and the sake of the life on it, especially wildlife, my wife’s love.

I never thought I’d return. My wife is from Oregon and we visited the Pacific Northwest first; we spent a summer in Nyack and then tended west: Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, a summer in St. Paul. After two years in Chicago we took a tour of the west – Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, New Mexico, and found aspects of each state we liked but never the right place. Along the way we stopped to see the only relative I knew in North Dakota, near its western border, my mother’s sister Elaine, and Ralph, her husband, and with him we attended a rodeo at Sentinel Butte. Back in Chicago, it was western North Dakota that in retrospect seemed to have an untainted sense of that Eldorado Americans have always pursued: the frontier.

We had joined a Presbyterian denomination and found it had one church in North Dakota, in its southwest corner, in Carson. With a compass I drew a circle with a radius of fifty miles from Carson, the focus to our hope, our faith, and we contacted a realtor in the area and told him what we wanted. Months later, when the realtor called with what seemed a possibility, I was too ill to travel. My wife went to see the place with her father.

Both her Peterson grandparents are from Norway and met in the U. S., so she is third-generation Norwegian on her father’s side. The pastor of the church that was the point of my compass was a Peterson, a coincidence my father-in-law never got over, and perhaps it was that or the lilting talk of residents (sixty percent are Scandinavian) that was the clinching influence. According to my wife it came for her at the midpoint of their drive from Bismarck in a rental car, before she saw the farm, as she swung around a curve on a hill above Flasher, where the Missouri breaks give way, and saw the countryside below, fields interleaved with pastures and misty buttes bunched in blue mounds in the sparkling distance, and her ancestry sprang to the surface.

She was at the wheel, her father beside her, and they saw what their ancestors – mariners and farmers above fjords where the sea exploded in cataracts of foam – saw when they crossed the ocean and came into this country – spread out from their feet like a sea with the fjords of buttes above.

My wife felt it through her body in a way that marked this as the place, she said. She sometimes still says, as we round the curve and look out on the land lying below to the horizon, “That’s the west” or “It was right here.” If I should happen to say, as I have, “Here’s your west,” she’ll merely go “Mmm,” letting me know in her gently sensible way I have no right to appropriate her vision.


Two things happen at once. The snow parts and I hear and glimpse what appears to be a tractor to the west, judging from the round bale gripped in a loader – now enveloped – and then a pair of lights trundle to a bright glow behind. They pause, as if trying to make me out through the streaking fuzz of pouring flakes, then swing off, past a mailbox they light up, the one I passed.

I get back in the car, flinging dripping snow, and feel hope: two vehicles, lights. Frostbite has my fingers feeling I’ve held them over a fire long enough to reach rare. I decide to head for where the lights went and as quick as that the storm lifts. I see the shape of a man inside the cab of what I thought was a tractor to the west but is a loader, busy on a run from a stack to a corral with a round bale in its bucket, trying to beat the storm.

Headlights reappear from close behind and it turns out to be a farmer in a pickup who lives off the road, his face the color of cowhide, so finely seamed it looks lined with leather tools. He went back for a towrope, he says, but why in hell am I on this road? Am I from out of state? No. Why, any fool knows this road is never plowed past his place once it gets bad. Where am I from? I tell him and he shakes his head as if it’s the worst possible place.

He hooks a tow rope, of thickly braided yellow nylon, to the bumper hitch at the back of my car and to his pickup hitch and tells me to get in. I drop it in reverse and give it the gas, as he does, but sit like dead weight while his pickup slides to one edge of the road, then the other, back and forth, as if it has straight left and right down pat, and no more. I see him back up, giving slack to the rope so he can try a freeing jolt, and hop out and warn him how a friend broke a two rope trying that on our heavy Lincoln.

“Get in,” he says.

I do, he applies his jolt, the rope sails off like a slinky snake with jet assist, and I touch my pocket, glad for the cash. But only a pin holding a hook at the end of the rope has pulled loose. He sits on a running board on the driver’s side, in the lee of the wind, to repair the hook. Over his pickup box, across the road where the loader works, I see another vehicle, a bulk gas truck come barreling in our direction from buildings now visible in the thinning snow – all this last-minute activity a blizzard brings on – then suddenly cant to one side and grind to a halt. A man climbs down from its cab and looks around, as if in shame, then trots back toward the buildings.

Down on the running board, the man whose fingers I’ve worried about since he pulled off his gloves to grip the ice-crusted hook, says, “It sounds like Ray has his Payloader going. I’ll go see.”

He’s been following the activity by its sound, as farmers familiar with an area do. He drives down to the canted bulk truck, pausing as if to assess the loss, then drives toward the buildings and is gone like that behind heaped snow. All farmyards are like this, a contractor has said; he uses a crane to clean out corrals and feedlots so swamped there’s no other way. We have damaged our tractor snowblower on the hard-sculpted snow; you have to ram it to break it up to blow, then the blower piles it in drifts that get other drifts going. From inside the car I meditate on the way darkness tints the overabundance of white pure blue.

This outpouring of nature, its excess not to be copied, and the energy we expend on it; the time it takes, first, to admit its presence, in whatever form in yourself, and then sift it from a poem or book or, better, your life. In the seventies I put together a book of poems called MATCH HEADS, to denote their brief blaze, all trimmed to a few lines. My publisher bought it but didn’t want to bring it out until after my next novel – which I presumed was nearly done. It took three more years, that excess. By then I had poems of a different sort and saw in them the beginning of a story of the relationship of eleven years with my wife. I added poems and found that many of the brief match heads also fit.

A new book came of that, named EVEN TIDE, for the way the two in a marriage are evenly tied, or not, and the time of day when healing happened in Jesus’ life. My editor and I persuaded each other we didn’t like the previous title, MATCH HEADS, also a pun, but another problem was manifest. EVEN TIDE ran to a hundred poems. I removed at least a dozen and used brief match heads as prefaces or conclusions to others and a rearrangement of the order of the poems in the story started to surface, and I remembered William Maxwell saying about a collection of tales, in his whispery voice, “When I was working on the final version, with all the arranging and rearranging it put me through, I reached a stage where I wanted to throw myself out a window.”

I wasn’t quite there but knew what he meant. I called my editor, Michael di Capua, who was working with a number of poets and he suggested I get in touch with James Wright. “So how do I put together a cover letter to a book he probably doesn’t have time to read and maybe doesn’t want to see?” So I said.

“Just call him. Jim loves your book.” He meant the “next one,” BEYOND THE BEDROOM WALL, which was listed so many seasons in the FS&G catalogue it became a source of in-house jokes, along with Harold Brodkey’s “first novel,” the advance on which had been out for so long without delivery that, as one wag put it, “the interest just on that would pay off the national debt.”

I liked Wright’s poetry and we had talked at New York soirees – once when he was nominated for an award he didn’t receive, and afterward said to me in the booth of a bar in the form of advice, “When something like this happens, what you have to do is make the next one so damn good it blasts the bastards out of the bleachers!” Which is what he did, or anyway he received the prize the next time around, after he quit drinking, as we had heard.

“When I finished my first book I showed it to Wystan Auden,” he said over the phone in a soft voice. “He was kind about the poems, I think, but what I remember most was him saying, ‘Only 43. You need to cut them down to 43, James. You can’t have more than 43 poems in a first book.’ I don’t know where he got the number, probably from his own first book, but I think he was right and I think I got mine close to that. I’m a little afraid to look.”

I’m afraid to look myself, but finally I get out of my chair and go to a box hidden behind a recliner I seldom use and dig through the books in it until I find a copy of EVEN TIDE. I open it, afraid the number will be in the 60s, and I’m somewhat relieved: forty-nine.

Still I feel the heat of shame climb my face.


A blur like headlights grows into spots at my back and swings past the mailbox; the pickup. I get out. A bulky yellow Payloader (what I mistook for a tractor) shows above the snow near the buildings and starts up the lane, then pauses and swivels sideways, as if training its robot eyes on the bulk truck, then swings again and rumbles past it, uphill to me. A driver climbs down a ladder from its cab in a hooded jacket, his face hidden, and hooks a chain to the Payloader scoop, then to my bumper.

“You’re a ways from home. You’re Woiwode, aren’t you.”



©Larry Woiwode, 2000. 
An excerpt from
WHAT I THINK I DID, due out in April 2000, from Basic Books, 
with permission of the publisher.


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