Idaho is my first venture to the American Northwest, in real life and in fiction. Before reading the state, I knew little about Idaho except that Boise is there and Idaho is known for potatoes. None of the books I read made reference to Boise or potatoes. Instead I experienced the railroads, forests, and small frontier towns of northern Idaho, and I learned about life on a reservation there — and the future ramifications of a one woman’s reservation upbringing.
Author: Marilynne Robinson, born Sandpoint, Idaho
Setting: 1940s or ’50s glacial lake in northern Idaho
Categories: Literary fiction, Pulitzer nominee
Housekeeping, a book that captures both the wild and the tame, is a book about keeping a house in all of the senses of the word: the way we clean and organize our homes; whether we have a physical structure for a home or are transients; how we keep the members of a household in our minds; and the way others judge us based on any aspect of our housekeeping. If we keep our homes tidy, we are respected; if there are cobwebs, broken windows, or hoarded newspapers and tin cans, we are not. If we have a physical house, we are trusted; if we are transient, we are not. If we mourn (and recover from) the deaths of members of our household in the expected manner, we are accepted; if we mourn (and recover from) them incorrectly, we are not.
In Housekeeping, Lucille and Ruth, the two young girls of this novel whose lives are marked by death and abandonment, diverge on the “correct” and “incorrect” means of keeping house. When their aunt Slyvie arrives to take care of them, looking like a hobo who has arrived by jumping a train (which she did), the girls learn a new way to live. Ruth takes to Sylvie’s ways; Lucille does not.
Sylvie is a non-traditional house keeper: she is a drifter. The town does not know what to make of her, arriving in a boxcar to care for her orphaned nieces, sleeping on benches with a newspaper over her face. At home — home being a somewhat foreign concept to her — she stores tin cans, bottles, and magazines:
Sylvie only kept them, I think, because she considered accumulation to be the essence of housekeeping.
Sylvie is a wanderer, and Ruth follows her in her wanderings. This book speaks in dream-like scenes, vivid with wildness when outside of the structure of a house: scenes of crumbling houses in the forest, of stealing a boat on the wild lake that claimed the lives of the girls’ grandfather and mother, of crossing a railroad bridge, on foot, unprotected in the dark of night, and of burning a house full of sentimental objects. Housekeeping explores the stock we put into houses, and in keeping them.
Robinson’s writing is gorgeous, and engages all the senses:
There the wind would be, quenching the warmth out of the air before the light was gone, raising the hair on our arms and necks with its smell of frost and water and deep shade.
Robinson’s was my favorite Idaho read. I cannot wait to get to Iowa so I can read more of her work.
Novel: The Jailing of Cecelia Capture
Author: Janet Campbell Hale, lives on the Coeur d’Alene Reservationin De Smet, Idaho
Setting: 1960s-1980s California & Idaho
Categories: Native American Fiction
Set in the 1980s, mainly in a jail cell in California with flashbacks to 1960s and 70s Idaho and Washington, The Jailing of Cecelia Capture tells the story of a poor, Native American welfare mother who grows up on a reservation in Idaho and escapes that land — and her family — as soon as she is able. She sees better things for herself than a drunken father and a spiteful mother, something better than poverty, something better than a traditional squaw role.
Like the author, who is of an Idaho tribe but grew up in Washington state and California, this book is more about how a tribal upbringing on a reservation shapes Capture more than it is about Idaho. Cecelia’s is a hard life, full of disappointments, bad choices, and a constant trying-and-failing to find her place, and her people, in the world.
She had been the daughter of a half-insane, mean old woman and an ineffective alcoholic father, and she had grown up poor and unwanted. She had been an unmarried welfare mother and finally become a drunk herself.
It is when she is jailed for drunk driving, and is incarcerated for days instead of hours, not knowing why she isn’t being released, that Ceceliais forced to stop running, stop drinking, and take a hard look at her life. She fought all her life to get somewhere, but despite her trying, she had had gotten nowhere but a jail cell.
What is refreshing about this book is that it is not a predictable rags to riches story. It is, however, a story that needs to be told, and is one that will stick with me for a while. Cecelia isn’t a particularly likable character, or even admirable, and those flaws make her story realistic: she is lost and has no role models. I don’t like her, but I believe her story, and sadly, I believe it is a story of many, not just of Cecelia Capture.
Novel: Train Dreams
Author: Denis Johnson
Setting: 1920s panhandle of Idaho
Categories: Literary Fiction, Pulitzer nominee
Train Dreams shows northern Idaho in its pioneer days: the early 1900s, when forests were being felled for timber, and train trestles were being built for the Spokane International. Johnson shows a northwestern state in its original form, rugged and wild, even as man attempted to wrestle the land to submission:
Swarms of men did away with portions of the forest and assembled structures as big as anything going, knitting massive wooden trestles in the air of impassable chasms, always bigger, longer, deeper.
When I first finished the book, it felt simple. Straightforward. I didn’t understand that there might be something more to understand about it. Despite its small size — only 69 pages — Train Dreams is filled with vivid scenes of what life was like in Idaho during this time.
As the novella sank in, I realized these scenes are bigger than a small story set in small-town frontier Idaho: the shameful treatment of Chinese immigrants and of natives who were there before the white man; the big woods and their felling; forest fires that consume entire landscapes; wild animals and solitary men; the building of tracks; the whistles of trains; and how all of these scenes show the blending of wild and tame — and the morphing of one to the other. More importantly, these potent scenes demonstrate the role man plays in the balance between the civilized world and the wilderness:
God needs the hermit in the woods as much as he needs the man in the pulpit.