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

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Larry Woiwode, whose 1975 novel, ‘Beyond the Bedroom Wall,’ a multi-generational saga about a Midwestern family, was hailed as one of the finest works of fiction of its time, died April 28 in a hospital from Bismarck, ND He was 80 years old.

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 main settings of “Beyond the Bedroom Wall”, and emerged in the 1960s as a hugely promising young writer. 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 Best first novel of 1969.

He spent years revising his second novel, “Beyond the Bedroom Wall,” which charted the heartaches and changing fortunes of the German immigrant Neumiller family for nearly a century after arriving in the North Dakota in 1881. Critics praised Mr. Woiwode’s evocative prose and almost Victorian sweep of the novel, which ran to over 600 pages.

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 revolved around the tragedies and secrets of the family, its Catholic faith, and the inevitable forces that separate children and parents. It also contained passages of silent lyricism, such as when a grandson of Neumiller meditates on his life:

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

Reviewing the book for The New York Times, novelist John Gardner wrote, “It seems to me that nothing more beautiful and moving has been written for years. In 1992, Washington Post book reviewer Jonathan Yardley named “Beyond the Bedroom Wall” one of the 22 greatest works of American 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 day, 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 collections of poetry and short stories and non-fiction books, but he never again received the acclaim he had for “Beyond the Bedroom Wall”.

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

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

Larry Alfred Woiwode was born on October 30, 1941 in Carrington, ND He was the fifth generation of his family to live in the state.

Her father was an English teacher and high school principal. Her mother was a housewife. The family moved to a small town in Illinois in 1950, and Larry was 9 years old when his mother died – a loss that would echo in his writings for decades.

Mr. Woiwode attended the University of Illinois, where he studied literature and drama and worked in radio. He was particularly drawn to Shakespeare and moved first to Florida to pursue an acting career, then to New York. A friend of his was fellow aspiring actor, Robert De Niro.

As a student, Mr Woiwode had been introduced to William Maxwell, a longtime New Yorker fiction writer and editor who had helped shape the careers of John Cheever, JD 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, ND, Mr. Woiwode got into organic farming. He and his wife home-schooled their four children.

Raised as a Catholic, Mr. Woiwode abandoned the religion in his twenties. Later he became a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, a small conservative denomination that broke away from traditional Presbyterianism and emphasizes a fundamentalist reading of the Bible. In 1998, Mr. Woiwode unsuccessfully ran for the North Dakota state legislature as a Republican.

He has published collections of essays on literature and religious matters, two volumes of memoirs, and several biographies of North Dakota notables. He had been the state poet laureate since 1995.

Mr. Woiwode has 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 directed the writing program at Binghamton University in New York. For the past few years, he has lived in Jamestown, ND, where he was writer-in-residence at Jamestown University. 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 the Neumiller family descendants from “Beyond the Bedroom Wall.”

“Our memories, words and deeds are linked like cells to others,” he continued, “so that no version is correct and our earliest memories come together in a pattern that informs another scheme that arrives, adding extra density to the original, and that’s about all we know.