Idaho Arts Quarterly » Reading Idaho

Reading Idaho


Little Lost River

Pamela Johnston

(University of Nevada Press)

"The day after my mom put the gun in her mouth, I went back to school." That's Cindy, one of Pamela Johnston's two main characters. The other is Frances, "short, not petite," who later happens upon a traffic accident in which Cindy's boyfriend has apparently drowned. The two become friends, and Little Lost River is the story of their intertwined lives.

An ear for the way people really talk is rare, but rarer still is an inner ear for the way they really feel. Johnston has that, and describes Frances as being "afraid of the things other people did as casually as putting on a coat in cold weather." Yet it's Frances who keeps her baby and rules out marriage when she gets pregnant.

Johnston grew up in Boise, where the book is set. Local readers will recognize plenty of landmarks, but it's the novel's richly imagined inner geography that sets it apart.

McClure of Idaho

William L. Smallwood


Inside almost every fat book is a thin book struggling to get out. At nearly 500 pages, Smallwood's bio of retired U.S. Senator Jim McClure is pretty fat, and its heft does its subject—a popular, hard-working Republican politician—a disservice.

McClure served in the U.S. Congress from 1967 to 1991. He worked effectively with colleagues in both parties, and drew votes from constituents who might normally have voted Democratic. A figure from across the political aisle, Bill Hall, summed up McClure as a "nice guy." No argument here, but in Smallwood's workaday prose, this nice guy comes across as not very interesting.

Despite his moderate stands, McClure could be disappointingly partisan, too. According to McClure, Richard Nixon's misdeeds didn't warrant impeachment, but Bill Clinton's did. Uh-huh. On the other hand, McClure helped create the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, for which Idahoans will forever be grateful.

As McClure's authorized biographer, Smallwood may have felt a duty to include too much material. A leaner, more incisive book would have been a better tribute to McClure's genuine, if modest, accomplishments.

Tom & Julia Davis: "Some Good Place," Boise, Idaho

Susan Stacy

(T&J Publishing)

Stacy's subjects are a pair of industrious Boise pioneers: Illinois-born Thomas Davis and his Canadian wife Julia. Tom reached his new home after a wide swing through the Northwest. He did well in the gold fields of Idaho City, but what he heard about the wooded river to the southwest impressed him, and in 1863, he and his partners built a cabin—the area's first—on the Boise River.

Julia met Tom when she accompanied a doctor and his wife to Fort Boise. She and Tom were married in 1871, and lived at first among the extensive apple orchards that Tom and his partners had planted. Shortly after Julia died in 1907, Tom concluded one of his most important transactions. He deeded 40 acres along the river to the city for $1, stipulating that it "always and forever be known as the Julia Davis Park."

Stacy's story of the Davises is the story of early Boise itself. Attractively printed and illustrated, it's a pleasure to hold and read.