Daily Archives: October 5, 2011

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.