Emily Ruskovich’s Idaho is a shattering and thought-provoking story, centered on a complicated collection of characters, connected by a mother’s murder of her own child. Reading to discover the motive brings no satisfaction; Ruskovich is more interested in the inner workings of each mind, not just the killer. Learning of Rustovich’s O’Henry award prompted me to read Idaho, but no surprise ending here. The story weaves in and out of lives, backtracking, going into the future, dwelling on the present. At times, the circular pattern is hard to follow as each character is slowly revealed.
The cast of characters meander in and out of the story, with flashbacks to the central focus, the murder of six year old May and her older sister June’s running away from the scene – never to be found. Later in the story, artist’s renderings of June’s appearance as she might be at different ages adds to the strangeness.
Jennie pleads guilty to cutting off May’s head with a hatchet while May sang in the back seat of their truck. She begs for a death sentence, but is sent away to prison for life. There she meets Elizabeth, a younger woman who has murdered her boyfriend and the neighbor who witnessed it. Jennie attends poetry classes and takes notes for Elizabeth, who has been banned from class for her attack against another inmate.
May’s father, Wade, has inherited his family’s penchant for early onset dementia – all males seem to succumb in their fifties. Ann, a music teacher at the local school, gives Wade piano lessons – his effort to focus his mind to strengthen his oncoming memory loss. Before too long, Ann offers to marry Wade to care for him as he declines.
Almost as an aside, Elliot, an older boy with one leg from a horrible accident at the school, has the attention of both Ann and June, who has a secret crush. Rustovich connects his life as a tangent to the main action – another lesson in life’s struggles.
Are you keeping up? Amazingly, Rustovich intertwines the lives of all the characters, although not until the end does her clever weaving become apparent. The murder may be the focus but it is not the point. Jennie’s sudden act may have been a moment of anger, but more likely an unthinking inexplainable move of frustration in the moment. The author never really worries about the horrible act; the murder just makes no sense.
“Whatever brought that hatchet down was not a thought or an intention. No, the hatchet caught on the inertia of a feeling already gone.”
As Ann continues to discover more about the murder before Wade loses all memory, her pursuit of the truth seems to be a race with his decline. Ultimately, he loses all memory and she is left with only Jennie as her source of information. In the end, Ann creates a new life for the now elderly Jennie, and when the two wives eventually meet, it is not as dramatic as expected.
Their lives go on, despite the horrors – as does all life. Maybe that was the point the author wanted to make. The book is difficult to read, but full of thoughtful diversions leading back to how people cope.