- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 25, 2008

“Depend upon it, sir,”Doctor Johnson famously declared on one occasion, that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight,

it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” The prospect of impending death distills a person’s concerns and values in a manner that everyday humdrum life cannot.

In his memoir “Impending Death,” novelist and farmer Larry Woiwode describes several instances in his life and in the lives of his immediate family when death struck a glancing blow and then withdrew. The instance paramount in his mind occurred on an August day in 2005 when, alone on a tractor out in a field, his open jacket became entangled in a whirling piece of machinery which nearly tore his arm off. With his twisted jacket enmeshed in the machinery and himself far from help and in great pain (with several broken ribs), Mr. Woiwode managed to draw his pocket knife from a trouser pocket, cut his way out of the jacket, and then stagger to his house for help.

This event, along with the long recovery period that followed, served as the beginning of a long meditation on the significance of his life, the immense value of the family he loves, the spiritual legacy he hopes to leave to his children and on death. The book is in part an extended love-letter to the author’s son, Joseph, who came close to death in a horse-related accident and today faces risks serving in Iraq. Recounting key episodes in Mr. Woiwode’s life as a son, husband, father, and writer, “A Step from Death” is also — perhaps most of all — an extended expression of gratitude, the hallmark of a mature mind.

The epigraphs with which Mr. Woiwode opens his memoir, speak to these very matters: A brief passage from T. S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton” on the mysteries of time and timelessness, and a passage from Henri J. M. Nouwen’s work “The Wounded Healer,” which emphasizes the essential role and interconnectedness of love and hope in creating wholeness within human life. The Nouwen quotation reads: “A man can keep his sanity and stay alive as long as there is at least one person waiting for him.”

As a husband, father, neighbor and Christian layman, he writes lovingly (and at times, painfully) of his love for his wife, daughters, son and literary friends, especially “New Yorker” fiction editor William Maxwell, a kindred spirit who published many of Mr. Woiwode’s short stories. A fellow Midwesterner, Mr. Maxwell serves as a recurrent touchstone within this volume, continually providing the author with direction, hope, humor, and perspective.

Early in the book, Mr. Maxwell ruminates upon facing perhaps the deepest sorrow one can face in life — especially while young: The death of one’s mother. Mr. Woiwode recalls, “‘You learn to live with it,’ he says, which is the best answer I’ve received, and his eyes brim and run, as if he could care less about his emotion or how colleagues at the magazine call him, referring to his tears, ‘the waterworks.’” You learn to endure and prevail. The faith that pervades “One Step from Death” is not the exuberant God-will-make-you-rich-and-happy faith of a drawling TV preacher but the seasoned, mature wisdom of Ecclesiastes.

As a writer concerned with matters of time and eternity, and the question of how the words printed on a fleeting page carry any lasting significance at all, Mr. Woiwoide is at one point moved to declare: “And every sentence is a question of who I am over its course, an assemblage of words sorting out my consciousness at the moment, recording a newly forming identity, just as every act we undertake proves or disproves who we think we are. The faults in my sentences, or my scars, then, might be the only truthful record I carry into the future.” This again is the voice of Ecclesiastes.

Throughout the book Mr. Woiwode captures the starkness of life on the high plains of North Dakota, part of a region known at one point in American history as the Middle Border, the last frontier in the Lower Forty-eight. Why does he choose to live in such a remote place, partaking in the difficult life of a working farmer?

He answers: “We live where we do because I learned that working with my hands releases language. It always has. It’s as if a sound booth is installed in some internal space, and over an intercom there I hear phrases or patches of conversation (more clearly as I’m falling sleep), and if I listen too closely, or sit at a keyboard or page, the voice clams up. But when my hands are busy at another task, especially one of earthbound or aesthetic precision — attending to a neglected corner of land, mitering pieces of trim to a tight fit — phrases and paragraphs and scrolls of pages appear behind my eyes as if inscribed on glass.”

Mr. Woiwode knows, as does Wendell Berry and all other thoughtful tillers of the soil, that a good life lived here below is an unending struggle in an arena of testing, a “seed destined to die in order to spring to life in another story.”

James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Earl Hamner: From Walton’s Mountain to Tomorrow”(Cumberland House).