What is it about Idaho that takes hold of the imagination?
The landscape that surrounds us certainly plays a role in who we are, whether through the images that make up the background of our memories (visually), the sounds that form the score to our lives (aural), or the framework that we use to try to portray our experiences (written). When it comes time for an artist to create, part of what occurs is a tracing of the environment that inhabits their brain. The context of a work can provide deep associations for the artist and audience, so the importance of setting can not be underestimated.
"Any time I think of a story, it is set in Idaho," says Pamela Johnston, author of Little Lost River, a novel published by University of Nevada Press (2008) and excerpted in this issue of Idaho Arts Quarterly. Although she hasn't lived here for many years, this is the place of her fiction.
Johnston's novel is set in Boise in the early 1980s. Readers familiar with the city will recognize many of the places that the characters inhabit: the Egyptian Theatre, Hollywood Market, The Crow Inn and Fanci Freez. She uses multiple narrators to tell the tale of two young women and their mothers. The setting is specific, but the inter-relationships speak to the reader on a universal level, and the observations transcend place.
But it is the place that sets this book apart. Just as it is the setting that defines the character, so does the setting define the work. "I'm trying to tell a truth about something that people don't know about," she says. "People think they know about Idaho, but they don't: They have these images from movies that are actually made in Montana. I'm trying to tell the truth about Idaho."
Getting to the truth of any matter is a worthy endeavor, and one that can be particularly hard to achieve in the interpretive world of the arts. Once a place has taken hold of an artist's spirit, its presence in their work becomes a key component of their expression.
"Idaho is definitely the landscape of my imagination," says Johnston.