One morning in 1978, the novelist David Rhodes rolled his wheelchair to the door of his farmhouse in rural Wisconsin to find his neighbor, Dick Woolever, waiting to make him an offer. “God woke me up in the night and told me how to make an elevator for you,” he said. This was three years after a motorcycle accident left David paralyzed from the chest down.
Appearing like this was apparently not out of character. A farmer and something of a polymath, Dick Woolever is a legend in the hilly region of Wisconsin known as the Driftless area. He had once devised a system that would allow him to pull the engine from a car using only the power he applied from a belt around his waist. Dick Woolover was a big guy. He was an expert electrician and welder, known for fashioning mechanical devices from materials he might find on his farm or could order from a hardware store. So maybe David wasn’t crazy to let this man take a chainsaw to the ceiling in a corner of his dining room. Within weeks, Dick had a working elevator fabricated from four vertical metal rods, cable, plywood, belts, rotating drums, an electric motor installed in the attic, and a hand-held control switch. He did it all for about $300, the cost of materials.
David Rhodes’ fiction first came to my attention after the publication of his novel, Driftless, in 2008. Friends of mine had talked about “falling into” the novel, and I too was won over by his characters, complicated individuals with whom I could empathize. I also found the book at a time when it seemed like rural people portrayed in movies and television were either lionized, made the butt of jokes, or depicted as ill-informed and/or vaguely dangerous. It rankled me. David, however, writes with a level gaze, both unsentimental and fair-minded.
A few years later, I met David Rhodes through a mutual friend and liked him immediately. Soft spoken and deeply passionate about a variety of topics, David is easy to like. This opportunity came just before the release of his fifth novel, Jewelweed, in 2012, at a reading in a room full of people who felt as I did. I overheard a couple sitting in front of me talking about two characters from Driftless as if they were all old friends, happy that a writer had put their lives to the page.
I’ll admit to being drawn to David’s personal story as well. On the back cover of Driftless, I had learned about David’s accident and that after having published three well-received novels between 1972 and 1975, he had not published another book for three decades. Like many of my favorite stories, it hinted at a profound struggle and redemptive ending.
I met David on two occasions this last August outside his daughter’s house in Madison. Happy to talk about his life, he invited me to ask him anything. At one point, Edna, his wife, joined us. I was struck by their level of intimacy. Perhaps even more than David, she is lively, quick-witted, and warm.
Except for brief periods during his twenties, David has lived in the Midwest. Born in 1946, he grew up alongside two brothers outside Des Moines, Iowa, in a traditional household. His father was a pressman. Though describing himself as being filled with frustration and angst, David was very close to his mother, the daughter of a Quaker preacher. After first attending Beloit College, David moved to Philadelphia to work in a chemical plant before re-enrolling at Marlboro College in Vermont. There, a “middling student,” he finished a senior thesis on the anti-hero in American literature. The writer John Irving served as an outside judge on his committee and was apparently surprised to learn from David’s thesis that his (Irving’s) protagonists were NOT antiheroes. I would imagine it was a lively debate. The fact that David finished the thesis at all is noteworthy, for in 1968, during his senior year, his beloved mother died of cancer at the age of 52. He left school and lived with his father in Iowa for two months after her funeral. Of those long months, he says dryly, “I became bitter.”
Though not a voracious reader as a child, David recalled a high school teacher reading a line to him from Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. He says, “It was like something just clicked.” One of the most important lessons he learned at Marlboro College was to be honest in his writing. David later discovered William Faulkner, in particular, Absolom, Absolom, and he recognized a kindred spirit in Faulkner’s attempt to resolve an inner struggle and in his desire to speak the truth of a place through a singular voice.
A year later, David was at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he admits he had little social life. Even so, he met Lucy, also a student at the workshop, who would eventually become his first wife. While a grad student, he worked nights at the Oakdale Sanitarium, an alcohol treatment center, and wrote during the day and on weekends. John “Jack” Leggett, the director, recognized his talent and put him in contact with Atlantic Monthly Press. David Rhodes’ first novel, The Last Fair Deal Going Down, came out in 1972 during the spring of his final year at Iowa. The Chicago Tribune called it “The best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years.”
After graduation, David and Lucy moved to Valton because farmland in Wisconsin was cheaper than in Iowa. The land is also different. Valton lies in the northwest corner of Sauk County, six miles from Wonewoc, close to the little Baraboo River in a region known as the Driftless area. The region, so named because it wasn’t leveled by the last ice age, is hilly and picturesque. Most of the tillable land is farmed on ridge tops and river bottoms. Though census numbers are not available, I was told that the population of Valton hovers around fifty souls. The most impressive building is the Valton Friends Church, home to a congregation of Quakers.
David describes the farmhouse they bought as “run down,” but that might be an understatement. Build in the late 19th century, it had been owned by a bachelor farmer (a crumbling silo provides evidence of that dairy operation) who didn’t have the resources or inclination to make improvements. The house was heated by a wood stove in the basement. David bought a chainsaw and an old International pickup and began cutting and hauling wood for winter. But the house was drafty, and they burned through their supply by mid-winter. Even so, it was a start: a home in a rural area, a place they could both write. Lucy started work at the Reedsburg newspaper, and David took a job at Sauk County Retirement Home.
David loved his job. He admired the staff, whom he found “filled with compassion and unbelievable mercy.” He also began writing life stories of the people he cared for. Copies of these biographies were then offered to their families. More than a few of the residents were suffering from dementia. One woman, close to death, opened her arms and embraced him. She called him Jesus. Even now, almost fifty years later, he is moved in the retelling.
David’s daughter, Alexandra, was just two weeks old when he had the accident. It was late summer. Afternoon. David says that though he’d ridden motorcycles for years, in the months approaching the birth of his daughter, he’d become more cautious. His motorcycle was not running, and he traded it to a neighbor kid for a bicycle. The neighbor got it running again and stopped by so David could take it for one more ride.
On that ride, David missed a curve. Instead of laying the motorcycle down as he might have in earlier years, he rode it into a shallow ditch, flipped over the handlebars, and landed on an exposed rock. Even suffering from shock, he knew immediately that he had broken his back. There was no feeling in his legs. As David told this story, I was haunted by the image of him staring into the afternoon sky that day as the gravity of his situation took hold. He was taken to Richland Center (in an ambulance that had been retrofitted from its previous life as a hearse) and then transferred to Madison General Hospital where he would spend most of the next two years.
The suffering David endured over the next five years was unimaginable, unrelenting, chronic. He feared that the pain would be permanent. He was also wrestling with the reality of his disability. During one of our talks this summer, he stated flatly, “Everybody who breaks their back believes they will walk again.”
David sought help at several pain clinics. He learned biofeedback and meditation techniques. Months and then years passed. Little helped. He became addicted to morphine. He endured twenty-one operations. For some reason, David’s hips began depositing extra bone which had to be removed in order for him to sit up straight. The incisions became infected and opened into sores. He ran high fevers for weeks at a time. Not until a surgeon figured out a way to remove muscle tissue from his thigh and then reattach a blood supply could David begin healing. David commented, with biblical economy, “I was bitter.” It was the second time that day he had used that word.
That bitterness must have contributed to the failure of his marriage. And for this, David takes the blame. “I should have tried to make it easier for her,” he said. Soon after the accident, Lucy moved to Middleton, just outside Madison, with their daughter. The demands of a newborn, a job, a husband paralyzed and in chronic pain who is perhaps distancing himself emotionally, must have been crushing. Today he and Lucy are good friends.
Over the long months during his treatment, David became close with the staff at Madison General. “They treated me like a human being, not a patient.” He also made friends with a priest, Tony. Tony arranged for David to meet other patients with spinal injuries, one of whom was a young farmer who had broken his back. At this point in our conversation, David fell into silence.
David also received visits from the pastor of the Friends church in Valton. Though David had little in common theologically with the young minister, he was won over by the man’s compassion, his open heart. After his discharge from the hospital, David moved back to the farmhouse, and began attending services at Valton Friends.
He was to endure three more years of pain. Confined to a wheelchair, restricted to the first floor, how could he have not felt trapped in that quiet farmhouse? Though he had found a doctor willing to keep him supplied with narcotics, the morphine became less effective and the side effects more severe. A therapist described David’s state of mind this way: “You’re not depressed, you’re distressed.” With little outside help, David kicked his addiction. He acknowledges that it is hard for him to imagine how he would have survived without help from his neighbors. One friend reconfigured the bathroom to give David access to a shower. He also built a ramp so that David could wheel himself to and from his front door.
This was about the time Dick Woolever knocked on David’s farmhouse door with his proposal to build an elevator for him. I wonder if his announcement and generous offer might not have signaled a change in David’s prospects. David told me that he was learning not to panic when the pain got bad. Perhaps slowly, a life that might also include joy began to seem possible.
Shortly after, he met Edna, the woman who would become his second wife, and their relationship changed everything. The story of their courtship must include mention of the second most impressive building in Valton, built as a lodge for the Modern Woodmen of America (MWA). A fraternal order founded in 1883, the MWA was one of the first organizations to offer life insurance to its members. Considered progressive for its time, it offered policies to “Jew and Gentile, the Catholic and Protestant, the agnostic and the atheist.” However, professional baseball players, gunpowder factory workers, and the residents of large cities were disqualified. The lodge in Valton is notable for a mural it had commissioned in the late nineteenth century called “The Painted Forest.” The mural scenes, primarily of forest, cover all the walls, and the lodge itself, now known as The Painted Forest, is a gallery currently administered by Edgewood College.
During a celebration of the mural’s restoration, David met Edna. The chemistry between them was strong enough that David called her soon afterward. Edna was teaching school in Madison, and Valton was at least a ninety-minute drive each way. On their second date, Edna showed up with a bucket of paint and their courtship began in earnest. She told me that the house in those days seemed like a “tragic place to live.” When she first saw the kitchen it was windowless and the color of “dark, overripe cantaloupe.” It “could barely be considered a kitchen.” The improvements took place over decades and eventually included the addition of a porch that caught “breezes from both directions.” David would spent most of his days there overlooking their perennial garden.
They married in 1983.
Though for the most part happy, their life together was anything but simple. They had a daughter in 1985. Edna took a job as a school psychologist, which meant traveling hundreds of miles a week in her little Subaru to visit clients in rural schools. David’s condition required constant vigilance. At one point many years later, David spent an entire year in bed, healing from bedsores while he was finishing the edits to Driftless. He and Edna traveled to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota for treatment and later to St. Luke’s Hospital in Milwaukee for therapy in a hypo-baric chamber once a week. David told me that there were wards full of patients in traditional wheelchairs who, because they couldn’t afford an electric model that would allow them to switch positions, were in constant danger of bedsores. David, however, thanks to a generous physical therapist who advocated for him to an insurance company, was able to acquire a new reclining electric wheelchair. Edna was troubled by the costs incurred by families who were not eligible for Medicaid, and rightly so. The cost for the chair was close to thirty thousand dollars.
Whenever it was possible, David wrote. David is clear about his writing process: 1) place, 2) character, and 3) theme. He first attempts to understand how a landscape (and its history) imposes demands on its inhabitants. Place dictates character. Character then determines the plot. Unlike some other writers, David doesn’t speak about conflict driving the action of his fiction. Instead, he describes writing as a spiritual exercise, a process of self-exploration. Furthermore, and this might not come as a surprise to his readers, David wants his writing to show his “thankfulness,” the joy he takes in watching and listening to other people.
He worked on a novel for several years before abandoning it. He volunteered in hospitals and nursing homes, writing life stories and editing newsletters. He worked for a prison reform organization. He volunteered his “secretarial services” to Family Farm Defenders and their extended battle with the Milk Marketing Board. David also played guitar for The Valley Tones, a gospel group, a role that gave him a great deal of pleasure. The musicians, from different denominations, tacitly agreed to avoid controversial subjects. They played all over the Driftless, enjoying fifteen productive years together.
Although David had begun a draft of Driftless in the mid-nineties, he was finally motivated by the death of a close friend, Mike, to complete the novel. It took him ten years. Mike, inspiration for July Montgomery, introduced in Rock Island Line, was killed in a farm accident when his clothes were caught in a power take-off, a spinning shaft protruding from the rear of a tractor to power farm implements. David recalls that when he was promoting Driftless in rural libraries, librarians who’d grown up around farms told him they knew the character July would die because he was described as wearing a floppy jacket.
Before David had finished Driftless, he was contacted, seemingly out of the blue, by Ben Barnhart, an editor for Milkweed Press, a small, independent publisher based in Minneapolis. He was asked if he might be interested in selling the publishing rights to his first three novels. (Yes, he was interested.) When asked if he’d been working on anything else, he again answered yes. Driftless, however, needed editing. It was over 1,600 pages long, written in long discursive sections exploring, the inner world of individual characters. Ben asked David to break up the sections into traditional chapters. Edna was deeply involved as well. In the acknowledgments, David credits her for advocating on behalf of characters he describes as “not the kind of characters who usually find their way into print—very private, never satisfied with their assigned roles, always wanting their voices to be more accurately rendered and their feelings better dramatized.” He credits her assistance as “instrumental throughout the entire process.” They worked for two years, cutting the manuscript down to 450 pages.
What started as a story about single-minded perseverance had become something larger, a story about community—a narrative about how people make life possible for their neighbors.
In late August, I drove to Valton with my friend Chris. We are both fans of David’s work and interested in learning more about the Driftless area and the people who inspired his writing. Just outside of Valton, we met David’s longtime friend Stan Bauer, who was wearing a Lands End cap and overalls and seemed to have the skinny on all things Valton. Friendly and talkative, he struck me as someone completely comfortable in his surroundings. And why not? He’d farmed in different locations in the valley for close to fifty years. Stan had made a call to the current owners of the farmhouse, Zoraida and David June, and they had invited us over. We piled into Stan’s van, and he drove us over the picturesque country roads to meet Zoraida and tour the farmhouse. I’ll confess to wondering which curve in that lovely stretch of road was the curve.
Though I’d known that David and Edna had put in endless hours over thirty years, maintaining and improving the farmhouse (a project continued by subsequent owners), I was surprised to pull into their old driveway and find a virtual postcard. The addition of a wraparound porch, a red metal roof, and landscaped grounds all added to the effect. It looked like a home you might see featured in a magazine. Zoraida invited us in. The interior was beautiful and homey. Chris and I noted that a window had been put in the kitchen at the perfect height for someone in a wheelchair to catch a view of the farmyard. I was hoping, however, to see the legendary elevator, and Zoraida agreed to give us a demonstration. After moving a few plants to the side, Chris, Stan, and I climbed aboard and rode the open carriage to the second floor. The ride was smooth and at least as quiet as the elevator I take to my office. After disembarking, we toured the upper floor where, through a trap door in the ceiling, we inspected the ingenious mechanism designed and built by Dick Woolever for his friend, David Rhodes.
Though the house is now a showpiece, lovingly cared for and cherished, I couldn’t help contrasting its current state with an image I’d carried with me over the previous weeks, one based on how it might have appeared to David during the winter when he returned from the hospital, forty years ago.
Stan drove us through Valton where we stopped to see the MWA lodge with its Painted Forest and the Friends church. Both are well maintained and obvious points of pride for the community. We parked and talked to Stan’s brother-in-law who was trimming shrubs lining the church parking lot. Over the church door, a hand-painted sign reads: Enter to worship—Depart to serve. We stepped in to look around. Though a new sanctuary had been added in the 1980s (it looked like it could have accommodated the entire population of Valton and then some), my favorite room comprised the oldest section of the church. The congregation had installed a kitchen on one end and set up tables where, I imagined, they might still prepare meals and talk over the latest news, their lives, and how best to care for those in need.
As we continued the tour of the countryside, Stan told us that David, in the days before he had a van with access for a wheelchair, owned a Buick Electra with two large doors that allowed him to maneuver himself into the front seat and then turn to lift his chair into the space behind the driver’s seat. In this way he would drive himself to La Crosse to visit patients in the hospital.
Stan also let it slip that he knew most of the people David had based his characters on. July? (Yes.) Grahm? (Sure.) Winnie? (A pastor here in the 1980’s.) Would other readers in Valton recognize these characters? (Certainly.) Stan nodded and smiled as he carefully meted out his insider’s knowledge. (David would later make clear that his characters were composites.) Stan’s pride in David’s representation of their community was clear, as was the pleasure he takes in their friendship.
Before leaving town, we drove down Woolever Road to Dick Woolever’s old farm. We stopped outside the barn. The modest buildings belied Dick’s impact on the community and the affection they still hold for him. His legacy reminded me of something David said when I had asked him how he made it through those terrible years following the accident. “It was always other people,” he said. “I could never find enough in me, it was always other people.”
On the drive back to Madison, Chris and I got lost briefly. The roads in parts of the Driftless remind me of highways in Appalachia or the Ozarks as they follow closely the demands imposed by the landscape. My cell phone had lost its signal in that hilly topography, and my GPS was, let’s say, unreliable. It was early evening. We might have been distracted while recounting a story of David’s wherein Dick Woolever, always looking for an opportunity to put his skills to work, had built David a rocking chair out of a recliner and a motor salvaged from a washing machine. He’d heard that David loved rocking chairs. It was belt-driven, I would imagine. The motion, however, was so uncomfortable that David couldn’t bear to use it. (The description brought to mind a mechanical bull.) Later, when Dick would stop by David’s for a visit, he always wondered why someone had unplugged the recliner again. Though he could not use it, David wouldn’t get rid of the chair until after Dick died.
What started as a story about single-minded perseverance had become something larger, a story about community—a narrative about how people make life possible for their neighbors. In this case those flawed, misunderstood, and sometimes heroic people became the inspiration for the unforgettable characters in David Rhode’s last three novels, books that honor their lives and this community.
David Rhodes passed away on November 10, 2022 at the age of 75.