Random House Trade Paperbacks, 336 pages, $17 (c2017)
“Idaho” is an odd, moving novel about a family that has come apart and then is welded together by a fragile commonality. “Family” is a loose term for Wade, Jenny, June, Mae, and Ann. Jenny, Wade’s first wife, killed their young daughter Mae. Upon seeing either the act itself or the aftermath, June, the not-much-older daughter, runs away and disappears. After Jenny goes to prison, Wade eventually marries Ann, the music teacher at his daughters’ former school. As if Wade has not experienced enough tragedy, he begins to act strangely and fears that he has the same early onset dementia his father and grandfather had.
“Idaho” is told from alternating viewpoints, most of which belong to Ann and Jenny. Why did Jenny kill Mae? What is Ann’s role in the tragedy? What was Wade’s? If you, as a mystery reader, are expecting straightforward answers, this is not the book for you. As Smith Henderson said, in reviewing this book for The New York Times, “‘Idaho’ will thwart readers expecting a defining pathology or demon at the heart of Jenny’s act.”
Emily Ruskovich presents her tragedy with grace and beauty infused in the telling. Especially Jenny’s story seems dreamlike, and she almost saintlike. Her burden in prison is borne mostly with silence, and in silence comes a sort of forgetting. But there is no forgiving.
Ann forgives. She forgives daily. She is the only one, it seems, who still searches for answers. One of the most poignant moments is when she meets with an amateur artist who is very good at creating a portrait of what the missing June may look like later in life. If Ann and the artist cannot know the real June, the portraits of June give her a real enough life.
In the end, there is a dilemma about whether there was even a crime committed. There was an action following a thought, but what in the end was the thought.