THE photograph on the cover of Larry Woiwode's new collection of short stories, ``Silent Passengers,'' might have come from the pages of a travel guide for the northern Great Plains. A car with glowing headlights follows a long, straight stretch of road; electrical wires droop from wooden poles; and a house sits at the crest of a hill. It's an image of human attempts to make connections in a region where the landscape holds sway: where human pursuits are dwarfed by the sky, the wide-open land, and the height of snowdrifts in winter.
That northern landscape, both forbidding and beautiful, is always the setting and sometimes the subject of Woiwode's fiction. In ``Confessionals,'' a story written from the perspective of an itinerant laborer, Woiwode describes the rewards of paying close attention to the land: ``I sometimes wonder if the mulch of centuries of these grasslands hasn't refined the palette into ranges so delicate that the colors can't be taken in without relearning an original way of seeing. Coming into a city or village from the land, you squint against the garishness of manufactured paints. Yet these are the hues we've grown used to ... and are the only colors most people see.''
Woiwode's protagonists are observant, introspective, and insightful - crucial traits in a habitat that can be physically and emotionally overwhelming. In the same story, Woiwode's laborer talks about the humbling power of the sky: ``The sky here can assert an unbalancing effect if you stare too long into its presence of unpolluted blue ... I was sure, once, that my feet were set so firmly I couldn't fall as I looked up to study the sky, and then I was picking myself off the ground.''
Some of Woiwode's stories sparkle with detail. ``Wanting an Orange'' and ``Summer Storms'' read like essays but provide a strong regional context. The story of a man's thoughts as he drives his family home through a snowstorm, ``Winter Insects'' communicates Woiwode's northern perspective poignantly. So does ``Black Winter,'' the account of a philosophy professor - driven out of academics by a fading memory - who returns home to Central Canada and becomes the manager of a machine shop.
But Woiwode's themes are best represented in the title story. It's about Steiner, a father struggling with feelings of guilt and helplessness as his son James recovers from a horseback-riding accident. Woiwode writes: ``James's recovery seemed an internal process, nearly separate from [Steiner] and Jen, and they had been borne along by it, silent passengers, ... until it had brought them home.'' The story ends with an account of the boy's recovery, and Steiner's vision of his family standing ``silent in the wind.'' While Steiner is awed by the power of natural forces, he also finds comfort in their constancy.
Woiwode's prose can be elegant and masterly in its simplicity. His stark imagery resonates with readers long after they've closed the book. At times his narratives enter too far into the psyches of his characters where tactile connections grow sparse (this is most apparent in ``Sleeping Over''), but his intelligent craftsmanship makes even his moodiest characters palatable.
This collection is Woiwode's 10th dispatch from his native North Dakota. His 1975 novel, ``Beyond the Bedroom Wall,'' won high praise and introduced a welcome voice to readers with rural ties. Woiwode has cut ``Silent Passengers'' from the same generous quarry. The stories seem to be deeply rooted in his personal experience, if not autobiographical. It is a vivid chronicle of the rhythm of life on the northern plains.