Some books grab you by the seat of your pants from the first page. Books such as “A Farewell to Arms,” Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy” and Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “All the King’s Men.”
The debut novel by Idaho native Emily Ruskovich is one of those books, so do not be surprised if you read that “Idaho” wins the National Book Award or the PEN/Hemingway Award—presented to an author who has not previously published a novel or book of short stories of fiction. Or perhaps “Idaho” captures the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, catapulting Ruskovich among the pantheon of premiere writers with just one book.
“Idaho” is a mediation about an unspeakable crime, forgiveness, and isolation; it is also a detective story. The main characters, Wade and Ann, are at the center of the story, and through their plights we learn about Wade’s first marriage to Jenny and life with their two children, May and June, who is now missing. Readers will want to learn more about Jenny and Wade’s divorce, and the author provides those answers with great profundity.
Ann, originally from England, is a piano teacher, and Ruskovich’s prose is as lyrical as one of Ann’s concertos: “When you love someone who has died, and her death disappears because you can’t remember it, what you are left with is merely the pain of something unrequited.”
But whose death is Wade mourning? The reader will identify the victim early in “Idaho” but will not understand why that person is dead and why the murderer committed the monstrous act with a hatchet. At the point in the novel where Ann marries Wade, moves into his small house and starts giving lessons in their home to adults only, the reader understands why Ann cannot teach children to play the piano.
The author also expertly evokes emotion and memories through olfactory senses. In a touching scene between mother and daughter, Jenny states, “May does not have this smell. She knows this … Do I smell like June? No. It’s just nerves.”
The book is told from several viewpoints and is divided into key years. And like William Faulkner, Ruskovich writes in non-chronological order, with the first three sections of the book taking place in 2004, 2008 and then 1985-1986. The final section is titled "August 2025," which features scenes of forgiveness and additional heartbreak. Through all portions of the novel, Ruskovich’s prose is sublime, but also saturnine, and therefore believable.
The author also focuses on Wade’s fading memories due to his early onset dementia, and Ann’s curiosity about Wade’s past life, which he will not discuss: “Other details came, slowly, but Wade never did tell Ann the whole story again. Why would he. … ” It is too painful.
In addition, there is a plethora of Idaho-centric activities taking place throughout the book. There should be—the author was raised in the mountains of northern Idaho. First, the children fill up garbage pails with water and dip into them to cool off from a hot summer’s day: “May’s dress is nearly dry from her swim in the garbage can.” Secondly, Wade raises six hunting hounds and creates custom knives, something a New Yorker likely would not do. Prisoners deliver piglets, and Wade and Jenny live on a mountain, where Jenny finally becomes pregnant with June after she and Wade have attempted to conceive for 10 years.
Although not at the heart of the book, secondary and tertiary characters like Eliot, whom Ann and June admire amorously, are adroitly drawn. Eliot shattered his leg in an accident on a dock, resulting in the amputation of one of his legs. Then there is Tom Clark, a sketch artist who paints pictures of June. Ann clings to his artistic prowess in the hopes of locating June.
The key to the novel, though, is Ruskovich’s ability to tie all of the scenes together with a compelling plot structure, unique form and dark mood, which entices the reader to turn the pages so they can understand why someone would perform such a dreadful crime. And it is the final section of the book, which Ruskovich pens with convincing ingenuity, which assists the reader to infer their own denouement.
Wayne Catan has written book reviews for The New York Times, The Hemingway Review, Idaho Mountain Express and the Idaho Statesman. He teaches English literature at Brophy College Preparatory in Phoenix.