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Book review: ‘Idaho’ ponders unfathomable tragedy and its aftermath

“Idaho,” by Emily Ruskovich; Random House (320 pages, $27) (Random House / TNS)
“Idaho,” by Emily Ruskovich; Random House (320 pages, $27) (Random House / TNS)

The heinous life events that gut humanity and leave people asking why are all too familiar. A brutal assault, an abduction, the murder of a child – the list is too numerous and depressing to compile.

These events can leave people stunned, grasping for answers that might never come. That void of understanding is at the heart of Emily Ruskovich’s debut novel, “Idaho.” Ruskovich, a 2015 O. Henry Award winner for “Owl,” builds her story around the implosion of the Mitchell family after Jenny murders her younger child, May, and the older daughter, June, is lost in the woods. Wade Mitchell is the lone survivor of the carnage, but his memories are being claimed by dementia.

And even the memory doesn’t provide a definitive answer to the question of why a mother would kill a child on an ordinary afternoon out with the family. It’s that sense of the ordinary, somehow always just a beat or two off, that makes “Idaho” a compelling tale.

Ruskovich’s writing is vivid and dense. She’s telling stories – there are strong subplots woven through the tale – that need to be told, but not necessarily resolved. After all, can society ever really resolve the death of a child at her mother’s hand?

Instead, Ruskovich follows the blurred lines that make up life, rather than the resolutions that make up fiction.

Ruskovich, who grew up in the Athol and Blanchard area and graduated from Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, has chosen North Idaho as her setting. Her narrative is gritty and dark. Years later, May’s murder and June’s terror-filled disappearance are still too raw to be discussed. This isn’t a story about the mental state and psychological baggage that drive a mother to kill her child. It’s about the aftermath and the search for a new normal.

Less than a year after May’s death, Wade marries Ann, a music teacher who had been teaching him piano. It’s not a marriage of convenience, but there are some elements of obligation and responsibility. Wade, whose father was in his 50s when he died as a result of dementia, is beginning to exhibit symptoms and Ann promises to take care of him.

Their relationship and May’s death drive the story. It’s a rich story as Wade and Ann grapple with the omnipresent grief from May’s murder and June’s disappearance, as well as his descent into dementia.

His reactions to Ann and treatment of her can be as gut-wrenching as they are tender.

The story is told from several points of view – Ann, Wade, Jenny and the girls are joined by compelling secondary characters like Jenny’s prison cellmate. For her part, Jenny accepts responsibility for her act, but her subsequent behavior is as murky as her actions on that fateful day.

Rather than trying to excuse an inexcusable act, Ruskovich focuses on how people cope in the aftermath. Her narrative is wonderful as she looks at the ripple effect May’s murder had on those closest to the events of the day. She goes beyond the boundaries of the family, reflecting on how tragedy can prompt even those on the periphery to re-examine their lives.

Much of the story is told from Ann’s perspective. She gets glimpses of family from Wade’s memories. As his mind fades, his memories become hers. Her anguish over the loss of Wade’s mind before his death is heartbreaking. So too is the phase when Wade understands that he is slipping away.

Jenny’s life in prison is also a striking narrative as Ruskovich is careful not to make Jenny, or any of the women in prison, a cliched inmate – hard-boiled characters always searching for a fight or saints whose eyes have shed their scales.

Idaho is a wonderful debut. Ruskovich knows how to build a page-turner from the opening paragraph.


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