Tag Archives: larry woiwode

The Year of Reading Leisurely: Book 1 — What I’m Going to Do, I Think by Larry Woiwode

When I was searching my bookshelves for a book to read I came across Larry Woiwode’s first book and thought how appropriate I read it for the first book of my book group break. I’ve been meaning to someday read it ever since I was in the 6th grade and Mr. Woiwode visited our class.

Mrs. Anderson, my wonderful 6th grade teacher, had a student teacher named Mary Woiwode. It turned out that Miss Woiwode’s brother, Larry, was a published author. He was invited to give a talk to the two 6th grade classes at Highland Elementary School. It was the 1968-1969 school year, but I don’t recall when the visit took place – I’m thinking second semester, so it was probably sometime in the spring of 1969.

Mr. Woiwode published his first book, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, three years earlier, in 1966, and was either working on, or had just published his second book, Beyond the Bedroom Wall, when he visited our class. I remember him mentioning that the second book might be made into a movie and he named a famous actress of the time who might be in the film.

I only barely remember the rest of his talk. He mentioned John Updike, and may have said, “my friend, John Updike” in answer to a question about writing. Our teachers encouraged us to ask questions, and I asked him what courses in college an aspiring author should take. I don’t remember his answer, except that he said it was a good question. After the talk and the question/answer session he signed autographs. He signed a piece of notebook paper for me – I still have it, but since I wrote, in purple ink, all around it, it probably is worthless.

I don’t know if anyone had him sign copy of his book – probably not because, although he encouraged us to read it, our teacher and parents were a little more conservative about 10 and 11 year olds reading books with adult content in them. The paperback copy – which was published the following year – contains this description on the front:

The literary discovery of the year – The haunting, erotic novel of a young man and his girl and their doomed honeymoon…

Here’s the excerpt chosen for the back:

He saw sand and dune grass and felt he could count the grains of sand below the curve of her shoulder and throat, each was so individually clear as they made love, and he realized she was seeing the sky, the bright blue sky he’d been staring at, and there was the freedom and openness of sky in her body, in its growing lightness of motion, and then all the space of the sky came.
They lay in silence, still linked, with the wind blowing over them.

Then, the quote from a book critic (Robert Phelps, Life Magazine) reads:

“THERE IS PLENTY OF SEX
Chris and Ellen make love abundantly, and in assorted moods, but never merely to put down Puritans. The lovemaking is sweet and horny, bewildering and majestic, funny and emboldening, somber and joyous – everything, in fact, that sex is always in literature, as well as in life, when it isn’t being used to sell something. …The day I read this book was wonderfully quickened, nourished, consecrated for me. I am grateful.”

I finished the book last month and, for the most part, really enjoyed it. I’m not sure I would have liked it if I didn’t have the connection with Mr. Woiwode, but it was well written and had many wonderful passages. I enjoyed meeting the characters of the book: 23 year-old Chris and his 20 year-old bride, Ellen. Ellen’s grandparents were interesting, as were neighbors, Orin and his sister, Anne. As I read the book I felt like I was meeting people I should have met years ago. I’d first heard about them over 40 years ago and, until now, had kept them locked away. Unlike some things, however, characters in a story don’t go bad with storage. There were a few parts that didn’t quite pass the test of time, but I tried to keep in mind how long ago the book was written.

There was not that much sex – and nothing graphic at all by today’s standards.

The hardback cover of the book holds a photograph of a rifle. Mr. Woiwode said something about a gun in his talk. For more than four decades I’ve expected this book to be tragic and as I read it I worried each time a character picked up a gun. The gun, I think, is another character in the book.

The most complex character is Chris. He claims to love Ellen, yet he is alternately jealous of men she may or may not have slept with during their one year apart and completely overwhelmed in his adoration of his wife. He slept with women during their year apart – and flirted with others when they were not apart yet cannot get over her possible infidelities. He carries a lot of baggage from his earlier life as the son of a Catholic farmer.

Ellen is less complex, although has at least as much baggage as Chris has. Her parents were killed in a mysterious accident when she was young – something that makes her so terrified to talk about, Chris rarely brings up the subject. She was raised by her Christian Scientist grandparents.

When Chris and Ellen marry, earlier than planned (she’s pregnant) her grandparents, who dislike Chris, offer their cabin in a remote area of Michigan on the shore Lake Michigan for their honeymoon. The book tells the story of their honeymoon from their arrival to Chris’s hellish day bailing hay for the odd neighbor, Orin to Chris’s demand that Ellen tell him the truth about her year in New York to his jealousy of what she revealed to him. It also introduces the gun and keeps the reader in a sort of suspense not unlike the works of Stephen King. In fact, I found Woiwode’s writing style to be a lot like King’s writing style.

Woiwode has written many other books – I own probably 80% of books he’s written. I recently read online that he is now a right-wing republican who is active in the right-to-life campaign. The blurb I read about him also said he gave up writing. It cannot have been that long ago, because he published a book called “What I Think I Did” within the last ten years.

I’m not going to recommend this book – only because you probably won’t find a copy anywhere. I believe it has been out of print for a while. Also because, while I am happy I read it, it left me flat –wondering if I missed something or if it really ended the way it did.

Finally, here is the description on the inside cover:

There is a remote summer lodge high on a wooded bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. A farm is down the road, and a village seven miles away. But otherwise there are only sky and lake, wildlife and weather – And a young man and his wife on their honeymoon…

L. Woiwode’s What I’m Going to Do, I Think is a hauntingly beautiful novel about youth growing up to the pain of loss, the puzzle of love, and the sense of despair lying near the surface of modern consciousness. This wildly acclaimed first novel introduces an author of unique and memorable talent. A best-seller since it was first published, What I’m Going to Do, I Think has also been bought for motion pictures.

My non-existent experience with Updike

I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that I’ve only read one book by John Updike, and one short story. The book was The Witches of Eastwick and I read it after seeing the movie twice. I saw the movie twice by accident — sort of. Dean and I saw it and then some friends wanted to see it so we saw it again. So I read the book — but I don’t recall why.  Perhaps so I could say I read a book by John Updike?

The short story I read was A&P. I remember liking it. I read it in college, I think. My son recently had to read in for his high school freshman English class.

I knew about Updike from a young age, however. My mom had a book of his called Couples. It had sex in it and I’d skim the book to find the parts with sex. I tried to read it from the beginning, but it was boring to me otherwise. (this may have been after sixth grade though)

When I was in the sixth grade an author came to our class to tell us about being an author. His name is Larry Woiwode. (his sister was my student teacher that year). I’ve not read any of his books either, although I have most of them. He called John Updike his friend when he visited our class. I knew who Updike was by then, but perhaps Woiwode’s mentioning him made me more aware of him. [Although now that I think about it I was in 6th grade in 1968 when Couples was published — but perhaps I’d heard of the author before somehow.]

A friend of mine really liked John Updike. She liked his Rabbit novels. I didn’t even try to like them.

So. Perhaps I’ll try to read another book by Updike in honor of his passing. Or perhaps I’ll read a Woiwode book instead.

Oh wait — Updike wrote a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick. There. Decision made.

Regret

My daughter asked me, a few weeks ago, if I had any regrets and if so what they were. I could not think of any, offhand, and told her so, but today I thought of one regret.

In 6th grade we had a student teacher – Mary Woiwode. I don’t remember too much about her. In my memories she was short with short dark hair. I remember only one lesson she taught – an art lesson. She looked at the drawing or painting I was creating and noted the diagonal line I drew on the page. She said she thought it represented the two sides to the issue (I think we were supposed to be creating our impressions of communism – or else I am mixing this up with another memory) – the light and the dark sides. The only other thing I remember about that painting was that I drew or painted some birds in the sky and a classmate wondered why there were pterodactyls or bomber jets in my artwork. Miss Woiwode’s validation of my primitive art was an important point in my life and I’ll not forget it.

The most memorable event during Miss Woiwode’s tenure in our classroom was the visit of her brother — Larry Woiwode — a published author. His book, What I’m Going to Do I Think, was a literary success and his second book, Beyond the Bedroom Wall had been considered for a movie. Mr Woiwode was young and, in my 6th grade girl’s eyes, handsome. He must have been in his mid to late twenties. I don’t remember much of his speech, except that he prefaced his answer to my question about the courses someone should take in college if one wanted to be an author, with “What a great question!”. That and he borrowed my turquoise pen to sign autographs and I insisted he keep it. I think. Or else someone else did that and were so open about their emotions that I absorbed it and made it my own memory.

This visit was an important one to the school. It was recorded and broadcast on closed circuit television. This was in the late 1960’s. I always wonder if the recording still exists and if so, in what format.

Until I met Larry Woiwode and asked him about college courses I had no desire to be a writer. But after meeting him as a 12 year old, I realized that I had the power to create words that others might read and laugh or cry. But that is not the regret.

Here is the regret. Miss Woiwode was getting married soon after her student teaching in our classroom ended. She invited the entire class to the wedding. I think we even got invitations in the mail. Maybe not. But I distinctly recall standing in my room in front of my closet. My mom asked if I wanted to go to the wedding. I think I said no. My mom seemed relieved. It seems that she may have said something about me not having anything to wear to the wedding. This might have been the day before the wedding or weeks before it. I know that I really wanted to go, but pretended I didn’t.

After the wedding the girls that did go talked about it. It was beautiful. Miss Woiwode was beautiful. And they danced — they danced with the groom and they danced with the brother.

My regret is that I didn’t dance with Larry Woiwode.

I didn’t know this was a regret until I watched a couple of videos of Mr Woiwode addressing a group of people last year in his native state of North Dakota, then I realized that all these years I’ve regretted not going to that wedding and being in the same room with this man again.

So Larry – if you see this. I’ve saved a dance for you.