Well-crafted literature builds a world of words that feels real, that rings true, that we can picture in our minds and yet we know is fiction. When done well, it asks not for the reader to suspend belief so much as to bypass the very concern. It drives us to consider different perspectives, opening our minds. It stretches our empathy and understanding, and sometimes even our humanity. Idaho, Emily Ruskovich‘s first novel, does this well. It is creative writing grounded in deep respect for its characters and the world that they inhabit. It is about forgiveness, memory, sin and friendship.
The book opens with a mystery: a wife, sitting in the family’s old and rarely-used pickup truck, is struggling to make sense of the life and trauma of her husband’s first family. Something awful happened and he is suffering from early-onset dementia. The first wife is in prison. Children are gone. There seems to be little but clues, fragmented memories and imagined images. We can picture the truck, the farm, the people as figures within a vast and indifferent landscape. The book’s themes of trauma and memory are introduced early and woven throughout, yet they do not seemed forced or artificial. As the chapters increase, we meet the first wife, learn about courtship and family, close and extended, friends and foes, and the expanse of rural Idaho.
A mother’s violence toward her children – an unexplainable and horrific act – functions as the keystone of the plot. However, Ruskovich is not writing a mystery and the aim is not explication. Rather, as chapters jump back and forth in time and are told from different character’s perspectives, we see the power of kindness emerge as a force for understanding and for making meaning. Characters wrestle with loss – of people, or place, of agency and of memories.
Ruskovich does not hurry us along. She writes beautifully and gives each character their due. Every voice contributes. Reading the novel requires attention. Details – imagined or “real” – are sprinkled throughout. These particularities function on two levels, as touchstones for the characters and as markers for readers. Idaho is mapped. She is particularly strong when it comes to silences. It is often the things not said, the language between the words, that reveals. Ruskovich writes about these meaningful gaps with care and precision.
Idaho, ultimately, is a book about what it means to care about others. While Ruskovich does not withhold judgment, her prose emphasizes the humanity of the characters – regardless of their actions. The book’s goodness works against the inexplicable act of violence at its core. Accordingly, reading the novel leaves us in an interesting place. We are not omniscient so much as gifted with radical empathy. It is not understanding so much as awareness. It is a feeling that will stay with you. It will be how I remember this impressive book.