As serious readers we like to believe we expect writers to challenge us. Why then am I surprised when I meet up with a read forcing me to work and to struggle for understanding in order to unlock the mysteries. Emily Ruskovich does just that with her debut novel, Idaho. As I searched the internet for some help with this book I found an interview with Ruskovich by Michelle Lyn King posted on electricliterature.com. What follows are a few excerpts from the interview along with my thoughts. The interview appeared on electricliterature.com. (Isn’t that a cool title for a website? I plan to sign up.)
Ruskovich grew up in Idaho. She says ”the story and the setting feel inextricable from each other.” There is little doubt that she knows Northern Idaho and what it is like to live in that part of the country in contemporary times. Never for a moment does the reader doubt the authenticity of the characters or the setting she creates, no matter how strange circumstances may seem. In the interview she also talks about her writing process, the setting and the time, her research, rhythm and read-aloud. No element is stronger than the rhythm of her writing.
The story stretches from 1973 to 2025 and is told in short chapters, vignettes or scenes with certain characters. These are not placed in chronological order. The time period of the scene is always clear but the relationship of events may be less so. The prose is lovely but relationships: emotional and time/place can be confusing. Always, the reader wonders about the circumstances between different characters. This is important to the story. Ruskovich says “I think a nonlinear timeline,….more closely mimics the way memory works.” This reader understands what she is saying, but that is true when one knows the whole of a story. The reader does not have that knowledge, but learns the story in bits and pieces. Imagine working a jigsaw puzzle with no picture on the box to guide you.
Ruskovich says she began with a short story. Next she wrote from the perspective of one of the main character’s father who suffers from dementia, one of many tragedies the author addresses with her story. She says beginning with this minor character “the structure of the novel really opened up. I suddenly had a lot of freedom to explore.” She writes from the perspective of many different characters. The childhood scenes in the novel ring especially true, perhaps because the author was also a child in northern Idaho in the 1990’s.
Regarding research, some of the scenes take place in a women’s prison. The author states she did look up statutes regarding the murder of a child in Idaho. She especially recommends the book titled Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women in the U.S. Prison System by Silja J.A. Talvi as very informative. She visited the Women’s Correctional Facility in Pocatello, Idaho. How does a woman or anyone incarcerated protect their inner life when they are in prison. This is one of the issues this author explores.
Absence, isolation, disconnections are major themes in this story. This seemed to this reader to be different from many works of fiction, at least those I’m likely to read. In real life we love and live for those loved ones, and yet we seem not to notice that we are aware of only parts of our experiences and only parts of what others are living.
It’s possible that one of the things that drew me to this story was to try to achieve some level of understanding for families that find themselves responsible for the death of a loved one. And then the characters that surround them strive with everything they have in them to cushion the pain of life for those around them. What comes of that? It seems to follow then that the narrative voice of this novel is poignant, honest and effective. Not only is it effective but beautiful in its rhythm, also dense and slowly paced, never for a moment dishonest.
If the foregoing sentences seem somewhat disconnected, I can only say they mirror the reading experience. As I finish the last thirty pages of this novel, I continue to struggle to make meaning of the prose, the story, and the ideas. One definition of reading is “making meaning.” That is what the reader must do when reading this novel.
Author: Emily Ruskovich
Publisher: Random House, 2017
Genre: Realistic Fiction
Hardcover Edition: 305 pages
Source: Personal copy
Sincere thanks to electricliterature.com and Michelle Lyn King for her exploration of this writer and her novel. You will love the detail that the interviewer explores. I hope that you will be able to access this interview online.