‘Idaho’ by Emily Ruskovich – An American Gothic Novel

‘Idaho’ by Emily Ruskovich    (2016) – 305 pages


The northwestern state of Idaho is not exactly a literary center in the United States although famous author Marilynne Robinson was born and grew up there before moving to Iowa.  From the novel ‘Idaho’, I get that northern Idaho is mostly rural with many rugged mountains, rivers, and wilderness areas providing a scenic backdrop.

‘Idaho’ is a strong haunting novel that will stay with you.  I do have some criticisms of the way the story is told, but these criticisms probably have most to do with the intense feelings that it provoked.

As the novel opens, Ann is a teacher in a school in northern Idaho.  The father of one of her students, Wade, stops by her classroom and is intrigued by Ann’s piano playing, and soon he is taking piano lessons from her.  One day Ann reads a newspaper account that Wade’s wife Jenny has murdered their 6 year old daughter May with an axe and the other 9 year old daughter June has run away to save herself.  Wade doesn’t show up for piano lessons for a few months, but then he comes back and Wade and Ann get married within the year.

They live on a mountain, and Wade makes knives for a living.  His ex-wife Jenny is locked up for life in prison.

The story is mostly told from the new wife Ann’s perspective.  She is of course intensely curious about this horrific event in the near past.  The story jumps around in its timeline in order to relate the full course of events.  In some of the chapters we are with Jenny in prison where she is hapless and affectless and eternally remorseful for what she has done.  She develops a friendship with fellow prisoner Elizabeth who has murdered two people.

One thing I should mention which is never explicitly stated in ‘Idaho’ is that the second wife Ann feels guilt that the beginning stages of her romance with Wade which occurred before the gruesome incident may have been a factor in setting Jenny off.  Emily Ruskovich is a much more subtle writer than I originally gave her credit for.  Later Ann must deal with Wade’s early onset dementia which begins in his early fifties.

For me, perhaps the weakest aspect of this strong novel is that we are never given a single good reason that the first wife Jenny would be capable of murdering her daughter with an axe. The novel does not answer the question, Why?  Perhaps the author Ruskovich is saying that some terrible crimes are just inexplicable.  Jenny is a seemingly fine person up to the time of the crime.  She is a fine person filled with remorse for all the years afterwards.  The murder comes out of nowhere.  There is a vagueness about the details and circumstances of the crime that I found irritating, since it is the central event of the novel.

But despite my reservation, I found ‘Idaho’ a compelling read that held my interest throughout .  I suggest you give it a chance in spite of my grade.


Grade:   B


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