On Death and Dignity in Emily Ruskovich’s Beautiful Novel, ‘Idaho’

Idaho asks, is time the element that binds us all? What does it mean to dream? Can our dreams be shared?

Emily Ruskovich
Random House
Jan 2017

In the new podcast series, Making Obama, on WBEZ-Chicago, the former president, his staff, and supporters are repeatedly asked if his story could have happened in any other city, and the answer is an emphatic no. Every aspect of Barack Obama’s post-collegiate life was shaped by Chicago. Place matters, and place creates the geography that makes people foolishly believe it [the land] can be tamed. However, in the words of the rock band Blues Traveler, “the mountains win again”, and so too does the land win in every aspect of Emily Ruskovich’s beautiful novel, Idaho.

Told in flashback, the story centers on a couple, Wade and Ann, and the tragedy their marriage is built upon. This is not a family novel. It’s a tribute to memory, and it asks questions that make it feel like the films Arrival (2016) and Interstellar (2014). Is time the element that binds us all? Can we communicate from the future to the past, and vice versa, through time? Idaho is neither supernatural nor science fiction; it’s a whodunit that is not beyond the realm of possibility. It’s just that Ruskovich has been able to put something complex into words.

The novel feels like the last two chapters were written first, as if Ruskovich heard the story of how Idaho got its name, and that inspired her. But in a February 2017 interview for Medium’s “Electric Lit”, she said the novel came out of the first chapter, which Ruskovich wrote as a story while a graduate student at Iowa.

I never made an actual decision to set the novel in Idaho; Idaho was there from the very beginning, from the very first moment I started to feel my way around this story, and in that way, the story and the setting feel inextricable from each other. The feeling I get from these characters is the feeling I get from the mountains of Idaho. It is beautiful and quiet and secret and can also be very scary.

Idaho, like its namesake, is indeed “beautiful and quiet and secret”. The language is relentlessly brutal, and like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), consists of elongated passages of sadness punctuated with moments of joy. Ruskovich describes a place full of wonder, though muted by isolation and cold. This style of rural gothic literature never shies away from the desperation that the land sows into its inhabitants, just as its inhabitants sow the seeds of life into the same Idaho soil. This is not the whimsical and idealistic relationship that Christopher McCandless had in Alaska, which ultimately killed him, as told by Jon Krakauer in Into the Wild (1996). This is a story about a family in a place that is as old as time, more like the Oregon woods of Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion (1964). Writes Ruskovich,

After his dad died, when Wade was only nineteen, he began to believe that the prairie, the open space and the sameness, had something to do with his dad’s early dementia, with his death. And maybe with his grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s, too. Three generations of early dementia in the same house on the same flat land that looked the same as everyone else’s.

There is one family, but multiple iterations. First, there was Wade and Jenny, and then came two daughters, May and June. We know early on that Jenny commits the crime of killing one of their daughters, and we don’t know why; Ruskovich unfolds the reasoning agonizingly slow, which will keep you reading. May dies, but June disappears. Then, Wade marries Ann, a school teacher whose role as a piano teacher, and a melody she teaches Wade, becomes one of those tiny aspects that carries huge consequences later. But as their marriage blossoms, so too does Wade’s dementia. Wade starts to forget … everything; “He has lost his daughters, but he has also lost the memory of losing them. But he has not lost the loss.” Ruskovich builds into Ann the emotional strength of a warrior, so in love with her partner that she recognizes when he transitions, briefly, from stages of knowing to not knowing to knowing again.

Ann, meanwhile, is still trying to figure out why Jenny was sent to prison and what happened to June. But as she tries to put together the jigsaw puzzle of the marriage she inherited, Ann’s investigation will consume most of the rest of her life as she uncovers a tragedy built into another tragedy. She will also begin a relationship, psychologically and emotionally, with Jenny – serving a life sentence in prison and refusing to ask for parole because she doesn’t believe she can ever be forgiven – but it will be a stilted one and not through the direct channels like letters and conjugal visits that one might expect. It will be subtle, but Ann will ultimately reach Jenny and connect with her through a partial drawing.

Because Wade had thrown everything away – drawings, clothes, toys – each accidental remnant loomed in Ann’s mind with unspeakable importance. Four moldy dolls buried in the sawdust of a rotten stump. A high-heeled Barbie shoe that fell from the drainpipe. A neon toothbrush in a doghouse … Artifacts heavy with importance they didn’t deserve, but which they took on because of their frightening scarcity; they built up against her, making stories of themselves, memories insider her head that should have remained in Wade’s.

I read for a living, but this author had me reflecting for the first time about things that I just had never really considered. I suppose I have gone through my life under the assumption that my dreams were mine, so uniquely a product of my thoughts and subconscious desires. But Idaho had me reconsider something I had always thought to be true. There are moments in the novel when Ann begins to dream about things that could not be hers … or could they?

Who can remember? Can a place remember? At this very moment, in such a vast world, is it not likely that someone else is writing the same thing I am writing? So, what of dreams? What does it mean to dream? What does it mean to share memories or to believe that memories can be shared? Does this mean that lives can be shared too? What if simply visiting a place makes you feel what others standing in that spot also felt? This introspection reminded me of George C. Scott in Patton (1970): “It was here. The battlefield was here … I was here.”

It’s not an author’s responsibility to please the reader, but the lack of resolution over June was the most disappointing aspect of Idaho. Her whereabouts become a sort of intergenerational mystery, as Ann attempts to figure out what happened. The lack of clarity about this whole subplot seriously made me wonder if June was real at all. We are led to believe that June was in the truck the day her sister died, and then she just runs away with not even a clue of her whereabouts ever discovered. Maybe there really was only one daughter? Does June represent some temporal alternative to May, so when the latter dies the former is set free since she can never die? And what about the boy who paints ostrich eggs? He had a drawing of a girl in his room. Was that a picture of June?

The author gives me hope that my ridiculous theory is more than just a lack of understanding on my part. She describes a scene later of May, forlorn because June is growing up and doesn’t want to spend time with her anymore, and May already realizing that she might be alone. This is a child we are talking about, but Ruskovich makes May into a giant. Is the author preparing May for the tragedy that will befall her?

Her father with his dogs, her mother with her horses, her sister with her books … She has glimpsed, once or twice, a kind of logic in these facts, a logic whose doors the rest of them can open and move through down easy paths. They are all leaving her behind. It hurts. The very idea of June lost in books when there is so much else, when there is so much danger all around, and they could live inside it if they wanted, she and June. It could be like it used to be, when the two of them were the same.

According to Islamic thought, your naseeb, or soulmate, is exactly as it sounds; the person you are supposed to marry was created from the same soul or matter, and when you meet again for marriage, the union is a reunion. In Idaho, Ruskovich has given us a formidable novel about the hope that guides all of us when it comes to finding love. And yet, what happens when the person you love has not only loved someone else, but that former love continues to linger and possibly, like an infection, fester? I hesitate to call her the protagonist, but this story is primarily Ann’s, and is one of finding a naseeb only to let it go, possibly because (s)he was never hers to begin with. If, as Ruskovich surmises, “to die is to simply remember how to die”, then Ann was never allowed to love forever because Wade was just waiting to die the way the land had decided for him before he was even born. The land always wins.

RATING 7 / 10
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