By Doug Hare EBS Staff
Growing up in the Hoodoo Mountains in the panhandle of Idaho, Emily Ruskovich came to love the beauty, isolation and danger of rural living. Recounting her childhood in a strange, hostile landscape in a February interview with Electric Literature, Ruskovich said, “I remember that one day, our half-built chicken house simply disappeared. Even the cinderblocks that formed the foundation, all of it gone.”
Now a creative writing professor at the University of Colorado Denver, Ruskovich wrote the first chapter of her first novel as a graduate student while in the universally acclaimed University of Iowa MFA program. Another of her first short stories, “Owl,” won the O. Henry Prize, widely regarded as America’s highest honor for short fiction.
Set in a fictional town in the northern part of the state, her debut novel “Idaho” hit bookshelves last year and has been garnering national attention ever since. In the same vein as Toni Morrison’s “Beloved,” it is a story about an unspeakable tragedy that transforms into a story about finding love, grace and compassion amid grief, sorrow and despair.
It is a murder mystery, a romantic thriller, and an exploration of the fragility of memory and imagination in shaping the narratives of our lives. Centered around the relationship of Ann and Wade, a British piano teacher and a man slipping into early-onset dementia, “Idaho” spans four decades and is told in a non-linear fashion. It moves back and forth, mimicking the way the past is constantly intruding on the present.
One day while collecting firewood, Wade’s first wife Jenny murdered their 6-year-old daughter May with a hatchet, and their second daughter June ran off into the woods, never to be seen again. As Ann attempts to figure out what could have caused such a senseless, horrendous act, we are treated to a lyrical exploration of loss and wrenching search for consolation and hope.
From chapter to chapter, the changing perspectives of various narrators are reminiscent of William Faulkner’s classic “As I Lay Dying.” With a stroke of brilliance, one daring chapter is narrated by a bloodhound: “Off duty, head up, the bloodhound is a different dog. The wrinkles fall open. The forehead is smoothed, the scent let go. This is how the dog forgets. This is how a dog moves on. He lifts his head.”
While the book might be considered slow moving by some, the poetic, rhythmic prose never feels indulgent or excessive. To write beautifully about a heinous act of violence is proof of Ruskovich’s raw talent. “Idaho” might be dark, haunting, and melancholic in tone, but in the end this book has much to teach us about how to deal with guilt, loss and forgiveness.
Doug Hare is the Distribution Director for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.