Larry Woiwode is the author of the "Moby Dick" of Midwest literature, "Beyond the Bedroom Wall" (1975), an epic of a North Dakota farm tribe, a big, complex, elegantly written book. This new book, "A Step From Death," is a memoir, one of three he's written on a smaller, more intimate scale. The behemoth "Beyond the Bedroom Wall" is in fact a character (or theme) in this memoir, a central event, not only in literature but in the author's life.

Woiwode (a Slavic-German name, pronounced "why-woody," as he instructs us) is an anomaly in literary America in a number of ways: He chose to move his family to a farm in western North Dakota (the state to which part of his family emigrated) -- 12 miles from the nearest village. He is a serious and practicing Christian of the Calvinist tribe and a mistruster of the liberal truisms of academic life. He's probably a Republican. He actually farms his farm. He home-schooled his children.

The form of this third memoir is unusual, a letter from father to his only son (he also has three daughters), Joseph, who is soldiering somewhere in Iraq. That fits with Woiwode's traditional beliefs in family -- the passing of the father's wisdom to the son, the eternal rolling over of generations. Much of the book is written in the second person -- a rare literary choice. He says, "Let me assure you, Joseph, before I say more, that I saw in you a son I thought I would never have and didn't deserve -- one who listens. That is why, in this third version of a memoir it's taken too many years to write, I'm peeling away every layer to disclose what I hope will be helpful to you."

After recounting the saga of building their farmhouse in North Dakota, Woiwode addresses his son: "We both stare at the oak floor it took a week to set in place, drilling and nailing every three-quarter-inch board above its tongue at the proper angle for nailing, and then days to finish it to its present sheen. We built this place and in it I built books and now build this one for you."

The metaphor of life as craft and work well done, whether carpentry, raising a son or writing, is at the center of this book. Woiwode sees his life, work and family as of a whole piece, an organic unity I imagine most Americans have given up any hope of making.

The impetus for the memoir -- and for its title -- begins the action. Woiwode gets up in the morning with a choice: a day at his computer scribbling or baling 30 acres of hay for his 14 horses. He chooses baling; the horses have to be fed. He readies his antique baler of square bales by cannibalizing a still older baler; he sets his power-take-off (the great killer and mutilator of farmers), mounts his antique cabless tractor. He likes the wind and weather -- more reality, less expense. The baler, of course, jams with rocks, as balers sometimes do, and, neglecting his own lifelong advice always to disconnect his power-take-off, he tries fixing it. The machine takes a snatch at his jacket and tangles him and tries to eat him, beginning with his arm. The story is dramatic and Woiwode is a virtuoso storyteller. Suffice to say that he survives: three ribs badly cracked, bruised arms and shoulders and fierce pain for weeks.

Woiwode is about 65 -- not old these days, but old enough to give one intimations of mortality. Time now to finish the undone work: this memoir, this letter to his son.

But the theme of this book is larger than Joseph and Larry; it is a meditation on the nature of fatherhood and sonhood. He tells stories of his own father, Everett, a high-school principal, even of his grandfather. Young Joseph himself is now a father, the sixth and seventh generations as Woiwode reminds him. In an America suspicious of history -- its own or others' -- and where remembering your mother's maiden name is more often than not a credit-card security test, this generational view of family is unique.

Woiwode tells the story of his own life as a writer. The book is full of good literary advice and insights into the mind of a crafter of fiction. He began his career young (in his 20s) and near the top of American letters as a New Yorker magazine writer whose "like a father" mentor was the famous William Maxwell, the magazine's fiction editor for half a lifetime.

In some ways, Maxwell is a more vivid character than Woiwode's own relatives. The anecdotes about him are one of the book's great pleasures. Woiwode tells us the harrowing story of the making of "Beyond the Bedroom Wall." It took 10 years and almost cost him his family and his sanity. Maxwell's voice is in his ears, saying, "Get it right." And after a decade of grueling labor, he does.

But he does not stay in New York for the laudations and connections.

He leaves for a working farm, for relative isolation and hard physical labor, for the worst weather on the continent, for few neighbors and fewer readers among them. But such empty places are where a man ought to raise his family and make a life -- far from the noise and infighting of the cities and universities. A book the size and grandeur of "Beyond the Bedroom Wall" is not made easily or quickly or without great cost. But how many such books does a culture need? Woiwode has given us a fine one, and in this smaller, more personal book gives us the wisdom about the world he's accumulated in 65 years.

We might not agree with his traditional family values. But we might agree that a sane culture needs a Woiwode to remind us of what might otherwise be drowned out by cant and media noise. The North Dakotans have made him their poet laureate. I can see why.

Bill Holm is an essayist, poet and writer from Minneota, Minn. His most recent book is "Windows of Brimnes" (Milkweed, 2007).