On a mountain-top in rural Idaho, a mother kills her 6 year old, in a seemingly impulsive, reflex action. She “waived her right to a trial, entered a plea of guilty, and, in a hearing that lasted twenty minutes was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after thirty years. During this hearing, the judge seemed to find her lack of self-regard unsettling, her adamant plea of guilt unusual. He pressured her to give an explanation, but she only said she had committed the murder of her child and she wished to die for it.”
Thirty-two years later, word in the Sage Hill Women’s Correctional Center is that Jenny told the judge: “I wish that you would kill me. But I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish.”
Word in the women’s prison is that during the sentencing, Jenny’s “husband didn’t look at her, not once.”
plural noun: lacunae
an unfilled space; a gap.
a cavity or depression, especially in bone.
Jenny is, simultaneously, the lacuna at the heart of this book, an emptiness of the heart; and Jenny is the heart of this book. Jenny is Schroedinger’s cat: When you open the box, the cat is either alive or it is dead; when the box is closed, reality is unknowable, paradoxical possibilities exist.
”Wade,” she says, “You break my heart.”
And you break mine,’” he answers.
By no coincidence, stray cats, missing cats, feature as a narrative motif, and Schroedinger’s cat is referenced.
After poetry class in jail, Jenny writes a note to her cellmate:
D says this poem in I’ams almost whole way through. Where meter breaks free (see where I circled the phrases he pointed out), imagine a voice breaking too. Form and content intertwined. (People seem to know what I-am means. I assume “first person point of view.”)
Later, she reports: “An I-am is a pair of syllables. The first one soft, the second loud. It’s the rhythm of the human heart, which is also the natural rhythm of human speech.”
Idaho is a meticulously crafted text, thesis material in its density but highly readable. It’s a narrative of paired ‘syllables’, a narrative of people bonded as pairs: husband and wife, parent and child, sibling with sibling, cellmate with cellmate. Every heartbeat of this story reminds us it takes two. The pair at the centre of this story are twin enigmas: the mother, Jenny, because like Christ before Pilate she refuses to explain, or even speak; the father, Wade, because like his father and his grandfather before him, Wade has younger onset dementia, his memory disintegrating while he’s physically hale, his life expectancy no more than his mid-50s, the awareness of darkness and death his life-long shroud.
Yet, the song of the heartbeat is I AM: the assertion of self.
The uber-I AM is of course God, G-d, Jehovah: the Old Testament God who declaimed I AM THAT I AM, who instructed Moses on a mountain-top, who ordered Abraham to kill his child. At one point a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses visit Ann and Wade on their mountain (Iris Mountain, a mountain seeded with wild irises, Iris in Greek mythology being a female messenger of the gods). I don’t think that’s coincidence, either.
Jenny pushes away I AM and has chosen self-abnegation: “I should never again be granted anything close to what I wish” – not even this wish. For Jenny, “Silence is something she can bear a little better than a failed attempt at saying what she means.”
Wade has lost much, is losing everything. But, as they say, nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps most dramatically enacted in a wilderness, on a wild mountain, and it is the human way to make meaning even out of absences and silences, to try to reconstruct significant events.
Idaho is constructed as a series of first person narratives, and through those first person points of view we see how driven the human heart is to construe events so that, ultimately, we, the storytellers, the first person narrators, are at the heart of the matter, at the centre of the story, and the story becomes ours.
And so it is that Jenny’s story is appropriated by the woman Wade marries after Jenny makes herself an absence, a woman who in her imagination projects such a vivid, sensual scenarios that ultimately she feels herself to be the sole custodian of this family’s story:
She knows from [Wade’s] casual gestures, from the simplicity of his smile, the absence of pain, that she has inherited his family wholly now, that nothing can bring them back.
For the first time, she knows for certain that they live only in her.
This woman, Ann, is a good woman, believes herself to be a good woman. Yet eventually she convinces herself that she is the reason the child was killed, convinces herself that she is guilty, through a kind of lovers’ telepathy, an osmosis through the medium of music. She believes herself guilty, too, of the death of a fawn, merely by her touch:
Had she known, when she reached out afterward, so softly, with just one fingertip, that she could do it harm? […] she thought of wiping the fawn with a wet cloth. But the cloth had a smell, too, of detergent. And so there was nothing she could do. […] Periodically that evening she forgot it, and then when she remembered, her fingertip tingled at the memory of that white spot, like peppermint. She thought of those woods at night. Wade had mentioned seeing a mountain lion before, not up here but down at the river, leaping right out of the water. So they were around. Coyotes, wolves. All those dark branches and dark trunks of trees and the fawn moving in the dark. Invisible except in one place, one white spot: Ann’s fingerprint moving through the woods like a point of light. Here I am!
Jenny is appropriated, too, to an extent, by the cellmate her comes to love her, who sees Jenny as her saviour and who, through a Cyrano de Bergerac act of ventriloquism,* eventually procures Jenny’s ‘freedom’.
Paradoxically, this cellmate is driven to violence by the paranoid perception that her previous cellmate had appropriated her history:
“It’s fitting that I stabbed her with her own mirror. That’s what they call in my poetry class ‘dramatic irony’.”
He says, in a dull tone to mock her, “You mean because she was stealing your childhood.”
“Childhood, soul, whatever you want to call it.”
“A person can’t steal someone else’s childhood.”
(But they can. Killing a child steals that childhood.)
When this cellmate, Elizabeth, again encounters the ex-cellmate she stabbed, Sylvia, she looks at her as a dominant, abusive partner looks at their object of abuse and wonders, ”Who is she now, without Elizabeth?”
Who is Wade, without his children?
Who is Ann, the second wife, if not a young woman with an empty life who found meaning as a medium channelling the ghost of someone else’s tragedy?
And who is June?
June is the other gaping absence in this tale.
When the six year old was murdered on a mountain, her nine year old sister, June, saw, and ran, like a fawn in the dark woods. She has never been seen since, except as a series of photographs issued every few years through the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, showing how that nine year old might look at 11, at 13, at 15, at 20. Ann has commissioned an artist whose vocation it is to construct ‘living’ images of absent children, to paint how June might look at different ages, in different contexts, living different personae. Is this another appropriation?
There is a character, Eliot, whose function is both to provide a living link to June and to show how hollow, how filled with the breath of hope, Ann’s life was before June’s sister’s murder.
Eliot has his own story – or he thinks he has. He tells his story often, dramatically, to assert his I AM. Then one day, his girlfriend throws in a different interpretation, and Eliot cannot live with it, can no longer live with her:
But with a casual shrug of her sholders, Ivy had changed his story. She changed the people in it. The intensity had not followed him – he followed it. […] He had become a passive player in the opening scene of his life.
And if Ivy could make him feel that in one careless instant, what else was she capable of taking away?”
At the heart of Idaho, our own private Idahos, is the question, can our stories hold? Can we ‘own’ our stories? Can we clutch them to ourselves, can we protect and keep them private?
Elizabeth’s injured ex-cellmate finds herself through music, through a reconnection with the piano.
Elizabeth wonders, “If music can live in Sylvia’s fingers for sixteen years without ever revealing itself, are there things that live in Elizabeth that time won’t touch, that nobody can take away?”
At the novel’s end, when it might appear Ann has given ‘back’ Jenny’s life, there’s a disturbing final paragraph. We think we know this story now. The basics were never in dispute:
“My wife has killed my daughter in the truck. My other daughter is scared. I need to get to her.”
It was the lack of ambiguity that made William stumble. […]
So Wade tried again. “My wife has killed my daughter.”
He was about to say it a third time when William managed a reply. […] “I understand. You’ve told me what happened.”
Do we, as outsiders, ever know the story?
In the novel’s last lines,
Jenny says, “On a different part of this river, I saw a mountain lion leap right up, right out of the water. It was the only time I ever saw one.”
“I know that story,” Ann says. “I didn’t know you were there, too. Wade told me.”
“He did?” Jenny smiles, surprised. ‘What else did he tell you?”
Ann isn’t sure what Jenny means. Jenny seems not to be sure, either. She laughs a little, for the first time.
Emily Ruskovich with rabbits
*Elizabeth’s act of written ventriloquism follows many years of literary ventriloquism, with roles reversed, with Jenny attending poetry class as Elizabeth’s proxy and handing in assignments written by Elizabeth under Jenny’s name. There’s so much in this novel to connect and unpick.