I first heard about this book, Idaho, on Radio New Zealand, not long after it was published in 2017. The reviewer was effusive. Not a common occurrence on radio reviews, I’ve noticed.
There was that, and then there is the setting. Idaho—that state on the western border of Montana which, during my year as an exchange student in the Midwest US and in subsequent return visits, has been that bit too far for me to visit. I’ve always wondered what life might be like there, in that place just out of view. So when I saw Idaho on the display stand at my library, passing it by, despite the armful of other reading I had already selected, was as impossible as saying no to chocolate.
I wasn’t disappointed. The very first paragraph reeled me in, setting the scene, making me want to know more:
They never drove the truck, except once or twice a year to get firewood. It was parked just up the hill in front of the woodshed, where it collected rain in the deep dents on the hood and mosquito larvae in the rainwater. That was the way it was when Wade was married to Jenny, and that’s the way it is now that he is married to Ann.
It’s a simple, yet very carefully crafted paragraph. Most second wives don’t easily repeat the patterns of the first marriage. Not without resistance and I didn’t detect any of that here. There is a melancholy to this opening, and an acceptance that intrigued me. I knew I was in the hands of an expert craftswoman.
As I read, I discovered that hill was more than a hill, it was a mountain. That truck wasn’t any old truck either. A brutal, unthinkable murder has taken place in that truck. And this, too, Emily Ruskovich manages with a light, yet not dismissive, touch. There’s no grisly depiction of blood and gore, but neither does she slide away from the horror of it; nor the horrific, enduring consequences for the murderer, the victims, for Wade, and for Ann.
The scene is told almost obliquely, Ruskovich lets the reader’s imagination do the rest. Mine, as always, was more than up to the job. And so I was grateful for that. It’s not that I shy away from such things, it’s that I don’t need my nose rubbed in the horrors the world has on offer.
The descriptions of the landscape are evocative, so much so that the mountain, in particular, is like a character acting on the narrative; influencing, you could say determining, the trajectory of the characters’ lives.
What a debut (this is Emily Ruskovich’s first novel) I kept telling John, without telling him too much. I didn’t want to spoil it for him—he might read it himself one day. How did she know that? I exclaimed about salient details that added verisimilitude in bucket loads.
The compassion with which Emily Ruskovich tells the story, the respect with which she regards her characters, as well as her readers, is awe-inspiring. And humbling. As a young writer, at the beginning of her career, she knows things about life that have taken me many more decades to figure out.
She makes several promises in that first paragraph and delivers on all of them. If you read this book you will find out about Wade’s marriage to Jenny, and discover why he wasn’t married to her anymore, you’ll find out how he came to marry Ann. You’ll learn about life on that mountain; how an early disaster was averted by planning and luck, but you’ll notice the seeds of the horrific, impulsive act that was to come. You won’t get an anaylsis or explanation about why it happened. But you will, through the lives of the survivors, come to understand the consequences.
And you’ll come to see that dementia isn’t always cruel. Sometimes forgetting can be a blessing—of sorts.
Idaho is a book that will break your heart, and then somehow help you put it back together again not quite the same as it was before: sadder maybe, comforted perhaps. That can only happen when the writer has both an unflinching eye for the failings of her characters and compassion for those very failings. But, as the reviewer in the link above says, the ending isn’t redemptive. And that it’s not, I found oddly comforting. This author doesn’t spin lies. She tells us how life is, with kindness and with compassion.
I like that. A lot.
After reading this book, it seems that life in Idaho is much the same as anywhere else. Tragic and uplifting. Despairing and inspiring. And as elsewhere, life goes on.
Here: You can read Emily Ruskovich’s observations about the experience of writing Idaho, including the heartwarming story about how she surprised her father with the inclusion of his song, Take Your Picture off the Wall.
Idaho by Emily Ruskovich (2017) Vintage Books.
Categories: On Books