Emily Ruskovich's voice is exactly what you would hope it to be: soft, lyrical and sweet. Just like her writing. Her insight—way beyond her years—on the many secrets buried deep in Idaho's backcountry is particularly keen. Just like her writing.
"Idaho is..." she said, taking a long pause. "Well, Idaho is a strange place, isn't it? No place quite like it. Growing up in Idaho was so beautiful, so isolated and quite scary."
Ruskovich's childhood included living on Hoodoo Mountain in northern Idaho. Sometimes her family went without electricity or running water above the town of Blanchard. It was there her family embraced the mountain's serenity, she said, but they were also robbed several times.
"We encountered many strange things out there. It was, in many ways, not a safe place for children to grow up. Yet, it was the most ideal place to grow up. My imagination is so strongly tied to Idaho. I love that area, even as I'm unsettled by it," she said. "Beautiful and dangerous."
It is with that beauty and danger Idaho, Ruskovich's debut novel, is framed. The book has already garnered acclaim usually reserved for best sellers.
"You know you're in masterly hands here. ... A wrenching and beautiful book," wrote The New York Times.
"Mesmerizing ... [an] eerie story about what the heart is capable of fathoming and what the hand is capable of executing," wrote Marie Claire.
"The novel reminds us that some things we just cannot know in life—but we can imagine them, we can feel them and, perhaps, that can be enough to heal us," wrote the San Francisco Chronicle.
When Ruskovich recently ventured to a grocery store near the tiny town of Alsea, Ore., where she lives with her husband, who is also a writer, she saw the most recent issue of O—the magazine founded by Oprah Winfrey—and opened it to a significant surprise.
"There it was: My book," said Ruskovich. "I'm not at all used to this."
Poetry and 'Something Terrible'
Such praise for the first-time novelist is far from a time when Ruskovich recalled being 4 years old and sitting with her mother on the porch of their mountain home. Not old enough to write or even spell her name, she dictated a poem to her mother: "When the world ends, my heart will be singing/ When the world ends, I will be very sad/ But right now I am sitting on the porch with my mom, and I'm holding a glass of water."
Beautiful and dangerous, indeed.
She recalled another moment from her youth that would ultimately serve as the inspiration for Idaho.
"I remember that my family was gathering firewood on a mountain parallel to the mountain we lived on, so far away from everything. We were putting wood in the back of my father's truck. I remember the crows, the birch wood... it was so beautiful," Ruskovich said and took a deep breath, falling silent for a moment in the memory. "I also found that I was haunted by this place. I had this sense... it was a sense that something had happened exactly there. I felt the possibility of something terrible happening."
The memory of the mountain, the crows, the birch wood, even the haunting burrowed deep into Ruskovich's subconscious, where it lived quietly for many years.
She would leave Idaho to graduate from the University of Montana, receive a master's degree from the University of New Brunswick in Canada and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She began publishing short stories, winning the prestigious O. Henry Award in 2015. Her literary influences include Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro and Pulitzer Prize winner and fellow northern Idahoan Marilynne Robinson, who was an instructor of Ruskovich at the University of Iowa.
"I sold a collection of my stories to Random House, but they were particularly invested in the first story of that collection," she said. "A teacher of mine had told me the same thing. 'This is a novel,' she told me. I was so intimidated. But when my Random House editors expressed a similar sentiment, I forced myself to open up the possibility."
It was that first short story, drawing on her recollection of life on Hoodoo, that would become the foundation of Idaho.
"I revised this novel for years," said Ruskovich. "I was strongly influenced by the work of Alice Munro, writing about the depth of experiences from ordinary people. And when I read Beloved by Toni Morrison, I had a new realization of structure; and through the years, my novel underwent major structural revisions."
By the time Ruskovich put the finishing touches on Idaho sometime in 2016, she concedes that it was difficult letting go of her characters.
"I went through a period of mourning when I finished the story. The book had become an absolute thing—a living, growing thing," she said. "Honestly? I could probably write this book forever. There was no real end. The perspectives could be infinite."
During the last few months of 2016, Ruskovich said she finally found what she called some "peaceful months." All of that changed on Jan. 3, when Idaho was published.
"All of a sudden there was a new anxiety, rather physical, that I had never felt before," she said. "I couldn't catch my breath. Every few minutes, I had to breathe very deeply."
The next day, Jan. 4, The New York Times was first out of the gate with its seal of approval, likening Ruskovich's work to Robinson (Housekeeping), Rick Bass (Why I Came West) and even Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest).
Memories and Unspeakable Violence
Idaho opens years after something terrible has happened. The mystery unfolds through the eyes of Ann, a northern Idaho schoolteacher and second wife to Wade—a divorcee, loner who is slowly experiencing the creep of dementia. Early on, we learn Wade's first wife, Jenny, killed their 6-year-old daughter May while their other daughter, June, ran deep into the woods of the mountain, never to be heard from again. Jenny is sent to prison while Wade's grief fills his days. Ann becomes the novel's surrogate detective, trying to piece together exactly what happened 12 years earlier. She must also survive her personal hell: Wade's unexplained bursts of violence which include holding Ann's forehead against a wall and, on another occasion, pushing her head into a pile of pinecones and leaving a rash of tiny cuts on her cheek.
Wade's memories fade, as do the details of what transpired on the day when he, his then-wife Jenny and their two daughters were gathering birch wood on a northern Idaho mountain. Wade shares only spare memories about the tragedy with Ann, leaving it to her to obsess over the critical missing pieces of the mystery.
Concurrently, Ann lives in fear of Wade's dissolution into nothingness, always wondering what might help trigger a crucial memory from his tortured past.
"At night, when he was asleep, she thought about these things as she studied the face she loved. His pale eyelids stark on his sun-roughed face. His lips chapped, his cheeks unshaven. Such inherent kindness in his body that it was impossible to picture this man doing the things he had certainly done."
What follows is a decades-long journey. Not chronological—much like memory itself, the events are scattered over the years until they finally find a place to settle in our consciousness. Eventually, Idaho leads us to Jenny herself and her life in an Idaho prison.
"The judge's voice was not much louder than a whisper. The sentence was delivered from his mouth but was somehow separate from the man, as if the child voice spoke for him, too. LIFE, he said, as if it was a gift he was bestowing; LIFE. As if the word could make it so."
The enigmas of Idaho run even to the jacket, which features a thicket of overbrush, thorns and wildflowers.
"I was shown a number of possible covers for the book that I didn't like. They really weren't emotional enough," said Ruskovich. "Then, our publishing house in England sent something from Christopher Wormell. I loved it. Our American editors loved it. It's beautiful, it's haunting. It answered all of my fears."
As for the title, there are probably thousands of books or booklets titled Idaho, nearly all of them non-fiction or travel-based.
"But I always felt that Idaho was the only title. My book had been fully edited, but the review committee had some concern about naming it Idaho, thinking it would be confused with non-fiction. They asked, 'Can't you give us something else?'" Ruskovich said. "But Idaho was crucial. Think of the magnetism of the word. When we got that beautiful, mysterious cover art, everyone agreed that it had to be Idaho."
When asked about Idaho's not-so-linear timeline, jumping back and forth among the years before landing on a future date in 2025, Ruskovich insists Idaho's time is, much like real life, "not always straight-forward."
"The dream-like aspect of stepping back in time, and then stepping into the future, well, it all fits the theme of Idaho," she said.
Idaho, the novel, is not unlike Idaho the state in that it is dense with mystery: in the people we meet, those we wish we had and, of course, the mountains and forests that hold their own never-ending secrets.