In A Step from Death a profusion of memories radiate from a near-fatal accident on Larry Woiwoide's farm in western North Dakota. Woiwode, a novelist and poet of America's heartland, had just finished baling hay when his denim jacket got caught in the tractor's power take-off, "a geared stub at the rear of the tractor that spins at 500 rpm." (p. 9) Caught in the powerful machine with no one around to hear his cries for help, Woiwode could easily have died, but survived by using his pocket knife to free himself from the jacket.

In a sense A Step from Death takes up where the author's previous memoir, What I Think I Did, leaves off. The earlier book focuses on surviving North Dakota's outrageously bitter winter of 1996-97. The current memoir ranges far and wide over nearly 40 years of Woiwode's life as a writer who chooses a difficult but fulfilling life for himself and his family on the land. The memoir is addressed to Woiwode's only son Joseph (the second of four children), with whom he shares his fatherly failures, as well as the strengths of their relationship. The reader soon learns that accidents were no strangers to their life on the northern plains. Woiwode and his wife and older daughter had survived a serious car accident on an icy road in one of their early Dakota winters. Joseph, too, sustained severe injuries as a child when he fell off a horse and again later in a tractor accident. On another occasion, Joseph and his sisters are responsible for accidentally causing a fire that burned down the family barn.

Now, however, Joseph is a married man, a helicopter pilot, with two children of his own. The recollections and wisdom that his father shares with him (and us) flow freely, creating a free associational, rather than linear, narrative. Woiwode explores the deep network of connections that bind him to the land and his family, as well as to the community of creative writers and especially William Maxwell, his long-time editor at The New Yorker, mentor, and father figure. Woiwode explores as well the strong pull of loss in his life-his parents' deaths and eventually that of Maxwell-but A Step from Death is ultimately a celebration of survival.


The number and severity of accidents of Larry Woiwode's life could well be looked upon as a kind of synecdoche representing the more global concept of randomness and meaninglessness in human existence. In effect, A Step from Death rejects that interpretation and presents instead a meaningful pattern in the author's life. "Presents" is probably not the right verb here, because the memoir is evocative, rather than declamatory. Likewise, the word "pattern" may also be ill-chosen, since the meaningfulness unfolds as an organic form with its roots in the North Dakota plains, rather than as an artifact, like a quilt or microchip.

The least meaningful parts of this memoir may, in a certain superficial way, be the most interesting. A Step from Death contains a fair number of New York literary scene and university writer-in-residence episodes that come across as gossipy opportunities for name dropping. They add nothing to the book's wisdom. except perhaps as examples of why the author chose to live far away from them. Likewise, the paean to William Maxwell becomes such an important slice of this memoir it tends to compete with the more central family-father-son-land theme.



Place Published

Berkeley, California



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