Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is a book for people who enjoy a fuse’s slow burn without needing the explosion.Book cover of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich.

Sure, there’s a murder. It’s a heart-wrenching murder. And there’s a mystery. But “Idaho: A Novel” is not a murder mystery, at least not in a traditional sense. In fact, we find out early in the book who committed murder.

The mystery of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is not in who killed whom. The mystery is in why. And answering “why” is the plot of “Idaho: A Novel.”

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Idaho by Emily Ruskovich Overview

Five main characters comprise Idaho by Emily Ruskovich. Four of these characters (Jenny, Wade, June, and May) form a family. A fifth character, Ann, forms a family with Wade, but only after Jenny, June, and May exit Wade’s life.

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The story unfolds across the present and the past. Chapters, often short and broken into blog post-sized sections, rotate between what’s happening now and what happened then.

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These glimpses into the past help color between the lines so we can understand the present. Ruskovich handles the flipping between timelines well. There’s not much confusion about what’s happening to whom and when.

It’s this constant tossing between flashback and present day that leads to “Idaho: A Novel’s,” slow-burn storytelling. Little realizations occur throughout the book. And you don’t have to invest much time into reading “Idaho” before you start to be rewarded with these revelations. An image of mountains behind a quote from Idaho by Emily Ruskovich reading "The revelation of kindness hurts worse than cruelty. There is no way to equal it."

But the incessant drizzle of discovery comes at a cost. Readers expecting the big reveal of a whodunit will likely be disappointed.

The breadth of “Idaho’s” story follows Jenny and Ann on disparate timelines, two women who love the same man (Wade). How did they arrive at where we discover them when the book begins? And where do they go from there?

True Stars of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich

There are two stars in “Idaho,” women and the book’s namesake state.

Nearly all of the characters in the novel are female, and the male characters are diminished or diminishing. It’s not a leap to see this as an allegory of man’s declining role in Western society.

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The women in “Idaho” are responsible for providing the solutions they seek. The men they encounter throughout the book, however well intentioned, range from unhelpful to oblivious.

Still, the women are not freed of men. They turn to male characters for aid or answers, but they are consistently disappointed by what the men have to offer. And the women are impacted, often negatively, by the dominant actions of men. Photo of mountains behind a quote from Idaho by Emily Ruskovich reading "Maybe she thinks that what she did all those years ago is a point in time that only a straight line can someday render too far in the distance to see clearly."

It wouldn’t be fair, however, to categorize “Idaho” as anti-male or a feminist mantra. Ruskovich doesn’t appear hell-bent on entering the novel into gender debates.

Instead, the author seems content to suggest men may not be the bee’s knees and yet they still maintain control over many women’s lives.

The other star of Idaho by Emily Ruskovich is, of course, Idaho. The state’s geography and weather play key roles in the novel’s story.

There’s a mountain on which Jenny and Wade live, followed by Ann and Wade. There often is snow on the mountain, and when there isn’t snow the mountain’s residents make preparations for when the snow will come. Indeed, it’s these preparations that serve as a central plot point for the story.

So important is its setting to “Idaho” it calls to mind Norman MacLean’s “A River Runs Through It.” As you cannot separate McLean’s novella from Montana, you cannot cleave “Idaho: A Novel” from Idaho the state.

The prose of “Idaho” may not sing quite as well as MacLean’s, but the former is still a well-written book. It’s a story that will keep you reading, even if it lacks a big explosion.

Photo of pine trees behind a quote from Idaho by Emily Ruskovich reading "The revelation of kindness hurts worse than cruelty. There is no way to equal it."


Idaho Book Cover Idaho
Emily Ruskovich
Random House
January 3, 2017

A stunning debut novel about love and forgiveness, about the violence of memory and the equal violence of its loss--from O. Henry Prize-winning author Emily Ruskovich Ann and Wade have carved out a life for themselves from a rugged landscape in northern Idaho, where they are bound together by more than love. With her husband's memory fading, Ann attempts to piece together the truth of what happened to Wade's first wife, Jenny, and to their daughters. In a story written in exquisite prose and told from multiple perspectives--including Ann, Wade, and Jenny, now in prison--we gradually learn of the mysterious and shocking act that fractured Wade and Jenny's lives, of the love and compassion that brought Ann and Wade together, and of the memories that reverberate through the lives of every character in Idaho. In a wild emotional and physical landscape, Wade's past becomes the center of Ann's imagination, as Ann becomes determined to understand the family she never knew--and to take responsibility for them, reassembling their lives, and her own. Advance praise for Idaho "Idaho is both a place and an emotional dimension. Haunted, haunting, Ruskovich's novel winds through time, braiding events and their consequences in the most unexpected and moving ways."--Andrea Barrett "Emily Ruskovich's Idaho is a novel written like music. Striking arpeggios, haunting refrains, and then you come to a bridge, and Ruskovich leads you up into the mountains, introducing a chorus of rich and beautiful voices woven deep in the Idaho woods, each trying to come to their own understanding of a terrible tragedy. This book is full of extraordinary women and men overcoming extraordinary loss through love and forgiveness. Ruskovich digs deeply into everyday moments, and shows that it is there, in our quietest thoughts and experiences, where we find and create our true selves."--Hannah Tinti, author of The Good Thief "It's been six years since I first read Emily Ruskovich's breathtaking prose, felt the force of her unsparing imagination, and knew I was in the presence of a singular talent. I've been waiting for the novel she would write ever since, and now it's here: Idaho begins with a rusted truck and ends up places you couldn't imagine. Its language is an enchantment, its vision brutal and sublime. This book is interested in what can't be repaired and every kind of grace we find in the face of that futility. It caught and held me absolutely."--Leslie Jamison, author of The Empathy Exams "Emily Ruskovich has written a poem in prose, a beautiful and intricate homage to place, and a celebration of the defeats and triumphs of love. Beautifully crafted, emotionally evocative, and psychologically astute, Idaho is one of the best books I have read in a long time."--Chinelo Okparanta, author of Under the Udala Trees "Emily Ruskovich has intricately entwined a terrifying human story with an austere and impervious setting. The result--something bigger than either--is beautiful, brutal, and incandescent."--Deirdre McNamer, author of Red Rover