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A Step from Death

Diane L. Olinger

A Step from Death: A Memoir, by Larry Woiwode. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2008, 272 pages, $24.00.

A Step from Death is the second memoir by Larry Woiwode, renowned author and poet and one-time OPC elder. The first, What I Think I Did (2000), records Woiwode's struggle, along with his son, to keep their farm running and their family alive during a terrible winter storm. In A Step from Death, Woiwode records his "temporary escape" from death in an accident caused by his carelessness with a hay baler attached to a powerful tractor. Both accounts are interspersed with Woiwode's recollections of significant events from his childhood, his college days, his days in New York as a beginning writer/actor, his relationship with his literary father and editor, Bill Maxwell, and North Dakota farm and family life.

For those who may have struggled to make it through Woiwode's challenging novels, these memoirs provide a different sort of entry point into his thought. He writes that his memoir "is a way of describing how one mind, mine, moves—the most revealing aspect of autobiography" (47). Woiwode admits that his mind probably does not "move" in the same way as most. He suspects that he could be classified as borderline autistic or "the victim of a many-lettered attention disorder" (3). He has suffered a disassociative episode, ending in a minor breakdown (93). He thinks, observes, and writes from a "displaced region," a result of some sort of "slippage ... that draws [his] attention inward" (4).

A Step from Death does not begin where the first memoir ended, moving us forward in a straight line. Woiwode is no fan of (or, in his view of things, a captive to) "the artificial, forced imposition of step-by-step chronology" (47). He does not believe that sequential storytelling either about his life or that of his fictional characters is the best way to accomplish his purposes. He prefers to examine each event as if simultaneous, allowing him to weigh one moment against another with a "godlike gaze into mini-eternity" (47). Perhaps this approach to time and event in his writing explains why for Woiwode a tragic event (in his case his mother's death when he was a boy) is something you learn to live with, not something you get beyond (32).

However, there is some chronological progress from the first memoir to the second. Woiwode is older now, sixty-three, and thoughts of death disturb him. All of his children are grown, the youngest leaving for college. Thus, Woiwode's relationship with his adult children is a focal point. In fact, Woiwode's stated purpose for this memoir is to explain certain things about himself and his life to his only son, Joseph. We view the progress in Woiwode's relationship with his son through the lens of Woiwode's relationship with his own father in chapters titled "Sonship," "Child as Father," and "Father as Child." This culminates in Woiwode's poignant recollection of the time when Joseph, now a uniformed deputy sheriff, confronts him with the question, "Are you drinking again?" (151).

The book's title refers to the tractor incident with which it begins, but also to other near-death incidents in Woiwode's life and his son's life, to aging, and to the human condition. "Death is our destiny," writes Woiwode, and we either accept it or pretend it doesn't exist (157). Woiwode doesn't pretend. He accepts death, but not with a placid fatalism. He rages against it, and sometimes fears it, and this leads him to cling to the One who has conquered death.

Woiwode is a Christian and has been "from the time [he] can remember" (15). He writes of his faith in both his memoirs. However, his contemplations of Scripture and spiritual matters are not recorded as separate chapters with titles like "Why I Became a Presbyterian" or "What the Westminster Confession of the Faith Means to Me," but rather as organic parts of his experience. Scripture is part of his life and comes to mind as he struggles to free himself from the tractor, and once free, when he sees his flesh laid open in raw strips, "by his stripes I was healed" (24). He refers to a Psalm when describing his love of the land (84); a yellow ID tag in a heifer's ear is a reminder of the children's catechism question, Why did God make all things? and the answer, For his own glory.

Woiwode is intriguing. How could someone hip enough to write for the New Yorker and to refer to Robert DeNiro as "my buddy Bob" (203) have been drawn to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church? I think the answer may be rooted in his fierce independence, a pioneer spirit. As an artist, he writes like himself and like no one else (not surprising, since he mainly writes about himself, even in his fiction). As a farmer, he adopts organic methods, regardless of whether his neighbors see the sense in it (75). As a father, he refuses to send his children to the public school, even when it means a battle with state authorities (176). As a medical patient, he leaves the hospital against doctor's advice and refuses tests and treatments he deems unnecessary (26). As an English professor, he sees little value in a PhD when he already knows how to write (244). Does this independence make him noble? Arrogant? Lovable? I'm not sure, but one can see the attraction of the Reformed faith to such a man, a return to what is pure and right, and the irrelevance to him of opinions to the contrary.

A Step from Death is beautifully written. It will be appreciated by fans of Woiwode's fiction, but also by others interested in the life and thought of this important American writer.

Diane L. Olinger
Glenside, Pa. Ordained Servant, April 2009.