Everything I know about Idaho I learned from Marilynne Robinson. I suppose that’s not quite true. I have a friend from Coeur d’Alene who feels a complicated love for his state, home both to great beauty and to the Aryan Nations. I know that the rich and famous vacation in Sun Valley. But my Idaho is really Robinson’s Idaho—the place that she has explored in essays and fiction, a place of the literary and theological imagination. In the essay “Psalm 8,” Robinson describes the Idaho of her childhood as “a thriving place…full of intention, a sufficiency awaiting expectation.” Here she is, remembering the lovely excess of it all:
Thousands of florets for which I would never learn names, so tiny even a child had to kneel to see them at all, squandered intricacy and opulence on avid little bees, the bees cherished, the flowers cherished, the light cherished, visibly, audibly, palpably.
In her first novel Housekeeping, Robinson places us in Fingerbone, a slightly fictionalized version of her hometown of Sandpoint. In a novel of many splendors, the descriptions of the sublime beauty of Fingerbone rank among the most precious:
At the foundation is the old lake, which is smothered and nameless and altogether black. Then there is Fingerbone, the lake of charts and photographs, which is permeated by sunlight and sustains green life and innumerable fish, and in which one can look down in the shadow of a dock and see stony, earthy bottom, more or less as one sees dry ground. And above that, the lake that rises in the spring and turns the grass dark and coarse as reeds. And above that the water suspended in sunlight, sharp as the breath of an animal, which brims inside this circle of mountains.
Robinson’s Idaho is wild and lonesome, eliciting feelings of sweet smallness: “I seemed to myself a mote of exception, improbable as a flaw in the sun, [and] the very sweetness of the experience lay in that stinging thought—not me, not like me, not mine.” Elsewhere, she writes, “Existence is remarkable, actually incredible.” Idaho’s vastness reminds Robinson and her readers that the world is indeed remarkable, that its sublimity almost beggars belief.
Like Robinson, Emily Ruskovich has first-hand knowledge of Idaho. She grew up in the state’s northern mountains, a place she remembers as “beautiful and quiet and secret” but also as “scary…hostile.” She also has deep connections with Robinson. Ruskovich has described her first reading of Housekeeping as transformative; she went on to study with Robinson at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
Given all this, it’s perhaps not remarkable that Ruskovich’s debut novel is set in Idaho—in fact, it takes the state name as its title—or that it echoes Robinson’s own work. What is remarkable, though, is that Ruskovich doesn’t pale by the comparison. Idaho is a wondrous novel about the enchanting and terrifying wonders of experience: unexplained and unexplainable actions, the ways in which love can pivot to hate and back again, the strangeness of memory and loss and mercy.
There’s a quiet grace to much of Ruskovich’s language, a decorum that occasionally sounds, in the best way possible, more nineteenth than twenty-first century: “They both simply knew how the other felt: that it was necessary to delay everything, even a declaration of love, until they were legally bound to it”; “There was an intensity inherent in everything until, one day, there wasn’t.” In this way, Idaho departs from the stylistically extravagant Housekeeping, resembling more Robinson’s later, quieter masterpieces, Home and Lila.
Underneath the quiet, dignified surface of Idaho, however, lies an act of almost unfathomable violence. One summer morning in 1995, while taking a break from stacking wood in the back of her family’s truck, Jenny Mitchell—mother to two young daughters, wife to a knife-maker named Wade—takes an axe to her youngest daughter May. May is killed instantly; the older daughter, June, runs away into the Idahoan wilderness and is never seen or heard from again. Jenny pleads guilty and is sentenced to prison, not explaining her actions but simply telling the judge, “I wish that you would kill me. But I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish.” Wade is left alone with his grief.
What could motivate such an act—especially from Jenny, a woman who, until that horrific moment, was a loving and patient mother? The rest of the novel explores this question, primarily through the perspective of Ann, a local music teacher who marries the bereaved Wade just about a year after “his unthinkable loss.” Ann’s love arises, suddenly and almost as inexplicably as Jenny’s heinous crime, from a desire to comfort: “‘I could take care of you,’ she said softly. She was very surprised to hear herself say this, but even so her voice was calm, as if she had been intending to say it all along.”
In trying to think about Wade’s unthinkable loss, Ann becomes interested in figuring out Jenny’s motivation. She imagines her way into May’s last moments before death, June’s last moments before fleeing, Jenny’s last moments as an innocent woman. She pores over the small signs Jenny’s life has left behind—a family polaroid, the interior of the long-abandoned truck—constructing memories of events she wasn’t present for: May and June playing in the field right before the killing; a song May might have been singing in the truck before the axe fell.
Wade doesn’t concern himself with such detective work. He is a sad and loving and good man, possessed of a tragic vision of life that helps him to understand why Jenny’s violence can never be understood: “It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t a thing that she did on purpose. It was a thing that happened. To her and by her, and that’s it.” This stoicism has been hard won, a response not just to the horrific act at the heart of the novel but to a longer familial education in life’s injustices. When Wade was a young man, his father, who suffered from early-onset dementia, wandered off into the Idaho winter one night and froze to death. “It was like that with my father’s father, too,” Wade says. “Only with him it wasn’t freezing.” Shortly after he marries Ann, Wade also begins to show signs of dementia. First, it’s small things: he forgets how to play the piano; he puts a hairbrush in the freezer. Then it’s larger things. He forgets why it is that the family truck remains at a distance from the house. Eventually, he forgets how, even that, he lost his two daughters.
In a terrible, beautiful moment late in the novel, Wade quietly asks Ann if she wants to have a child. She is surprised, and then moved, as she realizes that “he wants to know what it’s like to be a father. What it is like, not what it was.” He hasn’t just forgotten the murder; he’s also forgotten that he ever was a father. Yet even if he can’t identify the source of his grief, he still feels it. As Ruskovich puts it, “He has lost his daughters, but he has also lost the memory of losing them. But he has not lost the loss.”