Author Christine Pakkala Discovers a Different Home in Emily Ruskovich’s ‘Idaho’

The Idaho where I grew up is a very different place than the one Emily Ruskovich describes in her lyrical and thrilling novel, Idaho. My Idaho was a place of drive-ins and pulp mill pollution, long stretches of empty highway, and crowded pews in church. Hers is a romantic place, a majestic land where its inhabitants know the name of flowers and weeds. They know how to live both on and from the land. Like the white nationalists who hunkered down on Ruby Ridge, Ruskovich’s main characters sequester themselves on a north Idaho mountaintop, dangerously isolated in winter, paradisically alone in summer. In Ruskovich’s Idaho, isolation provides an opportunity for a crime so shocking and unfathomable, it burns at the center of the novel.

Idaho Emily RuskovichThe plot centers on a single, terrible action that happens on a hot summer day in the lives of Wade, his first wife Jenny, and their two daughters. The novel circles around the violent act, but the reader, following Wade’s second wife Ann’s investigation into the past, is kept at an arm’s length from understanding the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of that day. Wade suffered this terrible tragedy, but Wade is never much help to Ann as she attempts to piece together what happened. First he is reluctant to talk about the past, and then the past begins to elude him as he loses his memory. That mystery lies at the heart of Ruskovich’s story, and the solution to it keeps the reader guessing to the final pages of the story. It’s not a ‘whodunit’ but a ‘why?’

The novel breathtakingly switches back and forth in time and between a range of narrators, and some of these narrators are seen only once. Once the narrative convention is established, the story is one seamless pushing forward. It makes sense in the story to let the dead speak when they do, and to let characters outside of the main event shape the action because action takes third place after character, redemption, and language as a vehicle to achieving both.

In my Idaho, people speak plainly, directly, with a humor that is dry as an Idaho summer. In Ruskovich’s novel, her gorgeous language occasionally infiltrates the speech of the characters, and in this place alone I found my credulity stretched. But there’s so much to admire, especially in Ruskovich’s rendering of what it means to be a sister, and what it means to commit crimes, some we pay for, and some we don’t. As Wade begins to lose his memory, he commits small acts of violence towards Ann. After one incident, she flees. After he finds her, he remorsefully, says, “This can’t happen. Nothing like this. Never again.” In Ruskovich’s Idaho, history that can’t be recalled or retrieved is bound to be repeated. Re-membering is what Ruskovich does, through Ann, and through the second wife, the first reaches a brokered peace.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

emily ruskovichEmily Ruskovich grew up in the Idaho Panhandle on Hoodoo Mountain. Her fiction has appeared in ZoetropeOne Story, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. A winner of a 2015 O. Henry Award and a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she currently teaches creative writing at the University of Colorado Denver, but will be joining the faculty at Boise State University in the fall of 2017. Idaho is her first novel.

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