Larry Woiwode, author of acclaimed 1970s novel, dies at 80





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Larry Woiwode, whose 1975 novel, “Beyond the Bedroom Wall,” a multigenerational saga about a Midwestern family, was acclaimed as one of the finest works of fiction of its era, died April 28 at a hospital in Bismarck, N.D. He was 80.

The death was confirmed by his wife, Carole Woiwode, who did not cite a specific cause.

Mr. Woiwode (pronounced Wye-woody) grew up in North Dakota and Illinois, the two primary settings of “Beyond the Bedroom Wall,” and emerged in the 1960s as a young writer of enormous promise. He published short stories in the New Yorker, and his debut novel, “What I’m Going to Do, I Think,” about the struggles of a newly married couple, won the William Faulkner Foundation Award as the best first novel of 1969.

He spent years revising his second novel, “Beyond the Bedroom Wall,” which traced the sorrows and shifting fortunes of the German immigrant Neumiller family for almost a century after arriving in North Dakota in 1881. Critics lauded Mr. Woiwode’s evocative prose and the almost Victorian sweep of the novel, which was more than 600 pages long.

The opening scenes showed a son returning to North Dakota after a long absence to bury his father — washing and dressing his body and making the casket himself. The plot turned on the family’s tragedies and secrets, its Catholic faith and the inevitable forces that pull children and parents apart. It also contained passages of quiet lyricism, as when a Neumiller grandson muses on his life:

“When he was a child and couldn’t sleep, he’d lie on his bed … and think, Beyond the bedroom wall is Mom and Dad’s bedroom, and all of the other rooms around it, and then the yard around that, and beyond the yard is the town and the countryside with its farms and all the other towns of Stusrud County and then the rest of the counties filling in the state, and beyond North Dakota are the rest of the states and Canada (vague, reassuring shape), and then the oceans beyond North and South America, the globe, until he felt close to a vast source of power, God or the sun, and fell asleep against it.”

Reviewing the book for the New York Times, novelist John Gardner wrote, “It seems to me that nothing more beautiful and more moving has been written in years.” In 1992, Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley named “Beyond the Bedroom Wall” one of the 22 greatest American works of fiction of the 20th century.

The novel was a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and Mr. Woiwode was discussed in the same conversations as other major writers of the time, including Toni Morrison, Robert Stone and William Styron.

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After living for more than a decade in New York, where he wrote his first two novels, Mr. Woiwode and his wife moved in 1978 to a farm in North Dakota, where they raised their children. Mr. Woiwode published three more novels, several poetry and short story collections and nonfiction books, but he never again received the praise he had for “Beyond the Bedroom Wall.”

His 1981 novel, “Poppa John,” was about a fading soap opera actor confronting his faith and mortality. A 1988 sequel to “Bedroom Wall,” “Born Brothers,” took up the Neumiller family saga again, then was followed a year later by “The Neumiller Stories,” from which much of the earlier novel was drawn. In “Indian Affairs” (1992), Mr. Woiwode re-examined the characters from his debut novel.

Critics admired the clear prose and heartfelt descriptions of landscape, but as Yardley wrote in 1989, “he has told the same stories too many times.”

Larry Alfred Woiwode was born Oct. 30, 1941, in Carrington, N.D. He was the fifth generation of his family to live in the state.

His father was a high school English teacher and principal. His mother was a homemaker. The family moved in 1950 to a small town in Illinois, and Larry was 9 when his mother died — a loss that would resound in his writing for decades.

Mr. Woiwode attended the University of Illinois, where he studied literature and theater and worked in radio. He was particularly drawn to Shakespeare and moved first to Florida to pursue an acting career and later to New York. One of his friends was another aspiring actor, Robert De Niro.

As a college student, Mr. Woiwode had been introduced to William Maxwell, a writer and longtime fiction editor at the New Yorker, who had helped shape the careers of John Cheever, J.D. Salinger and John Updike. Like Mr. Woiwode, Maxwell had grown up in Illinois and lost his mother at an impressionable age.

At their meetings in Central Park, Maxwell brought Mr. Woiwode sandwiches — sometimes his only meal of the day — encouraged his writing and published more than a dozen of his stories in the New Yorker.

After settling near Mott, N.D., Mr. Woiwode took up organic farming. He and his wife home-schooled their four children.

Raised as a Catholic, Mr. Woiwode abandoned religion in his 20s. He later became a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small, conservative denomination that broke away from mainstream Presbyterianism and emphasizes a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. In 1998, Mr. Woiwode made an unsuccessful run for the North Dakota state legislature as a Republican.

He published essay collections about literature and religious matters, two volumes of memoirs and several biographies of notable North Dakotans. He had been the state’s poet laureate since 1995.

Mr. Woiwode taught literature and fiction writing throughout his career, including at Wheaton College in Illinois and the University of North Dakota. In the mid-1980s, he headed the writing program at Binghamton University in New York. In recent years, he lived in Jamestown, N.D., where was a writer-in-residence at the University of Jamestown. His honors included two Guggenheim fellowships and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for “distinction in the art of the short story.”

Survivors include his wife since 1965, the former Carole Peterson; four children; two sisters; a brother; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandsons.

“Imagination is, indeed, memory,” Mr. Woiwode wrote in “Born Brothers,” his 1988 novel about descendants of the Neumiller family of “Beyond the Bedroom Wall.”

“Our memories and words and acts are linked like cells to others,” he continued, “so that no single version is right and our earliest memories gather in a pattern that informs another pattern that arrives, adding further density to the original, and that is about all we know.”






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