EWade and Jenny have been together for 11 years when they decide to move from the prairie to northern Idaho, to the mountains. For a few dollars they buy a large piece of land on a steep mountain slope, forested, untouched. It is spring, Wade is building a shed as the first place to stay and wants to start building houses when Jenny becomes pregnant.
They have wanted a child for so long, they are stunned with happiness. But winter sets in early and violently and that means: snow, every day, to an extent that they could not imagine. They have no money for a snow plow, no neighbors far and wide, the next place can only be reached on foot, eight miles down the mountain and along the highway. Nobody warned them that they were trapped.
But they don’t give up. Wade walks through the snow to the supermarket and pulls the groceries up the mountain on a sled. And he clears every day to create a landing site for the helicopter in case Jenny has to go to the hospital. You have a radio telephone, it is the winter of 1985/86. Your address is: Ponderosa, Forest Service Road. Your house number: 7846.
Can a European imagine such an address, such a life? A vast, radical loneliness, a landscape that he has to make habitable with his own hands like the heroes in the Western? Civilization can be reached as the last emergency nail. But what will the monotony of the days, the early dark, the lack of socializing with the couple do? Will it be a horror movie?
Not at all. Minor crises, yes, but love survives the icy months unscathed. Conclusion: A happy ending is always possible in the clear air of rural America, at least for the good, efficient and steady. Will European readers believe it? And do the Americans believe it themselves?
Happiness from the settlers or horror film?
The touching happiness of the settlers is told as a flashback when it is already destroyed, which does not mean that it was deceptive. It lasted as long as it lasted, then it was horribly and permanently erased within seconds. This is described in the first chapter. A thriller could begin to gradually uncover the mental abyss that makes the terrible plausible.
“Idaho” works differently. The deed remains the deed, the murderous evil happens and remains in the center as an ambiguous, inexplicable event. The novel tells the stories of those affected. It spans a period of more than fifty years, from 1973 to 2025, and follows its own leaping chronology, which does not reduce its legibility and intensifies the tension.
Significant episodes alternate with marginal ones and result in an epic whole without lashed boundaries: additional chapters can easily be devised. Despite different perspectives, depending on the person with whose eyes we see, the narrator always remains perceptible. The book carries her security and empathy, her language is the same for everyone.
The title shows what she is aiming for: the story is Idaho, a piece of marginalized America that is difficult to localize in the present. The country and the right place for epics is wide, but the narrowness that the individual encloses is oppressive. The author has mastered modern narrative techniques, but Wade beckons us from a distance that seemed long gone. Henry Fonda could have played him.
In order to make money, Wade produces knives that are works of art in their own way, but still: knives. Jenny handles an ax. A young man is crippled by an accident that may have hid an attack. There it is, violence, part of a hard, idyllic life, and of course (“natural”?) It is also the trigger for the novel and our reading. America the Beautiful alone would hardly sustain interest.
“Idaho” is Emily Ruskovich’s first novel. There is a photo on the net that shows her as a country beauty. Young, long blond hair, without make-up, pensive smile. Her book is about love and motherhood, about guilt, but also about being penitent, reminiscent of Dostoevsky. Sometimes it is emotional, sometimes it gets lost in explanations.
But evil is not explained and there is no mention of God, which is surprising for such a decidedly moral book. It is worth reading, and even more to talk to others about.
Emily Ruskovich: “Idaho“. From the English by Stefanie Jacobs. Hanser Berlin, 384 pages, € 24.