On grappling with a past shadowed by violence

Two books examine the relationship people have with painful family histories.

 

In Idaho, the elegant, contemplative debut novel by Idaho-raised, Boise State assistant professor Emily Ruskovich, two sisters play a game in a meadow. If you “hold a buttercup under someone’s chin” and it “makes a yellow glow,” that indicates the person has a secret. “The chins always glow yellow,” Ruskovich writes. “That’s the trick: There’s always a secret. Everyone has something she doesn’t want told.”

That’s certainly true of the characters in Ruskovich’s novel, as well as in Jon Raymond’s Freebird. Both books are set in the West and explore the aftermath of violence, though they do so in very different families. In Idaho, Ann, a piano teacher in the northern part of the state, tries to unravel the mystery behind her husband Wade’s first wife, Jenny, who had killed her youngest daughter nine years earlier. Her older daughter then fled into the woods, never to be found. Wade suffers from early onset dementia, an affliction that is causing his personality to disintegrate even as it erodes the painful memories Ann is so keen to unearth.

Violence and forgetting are also at the heart of Freebird, the engaging fourth book by Portland, Oregon-based novelist and screenwriter Jon Raymond. The Singer family patriarch, Grandpa Sam, is a Jewish Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Oakland from Poland after his traumatic youth, about which he never speaks. Sam’s daughter, Anne, wants to settle him in a nursing home, but frugal Sam resists, so until a better option appears, Aaron, Anne’s teenage son, looks after him.

Aaron, who lacks direction, is considering eschewing college to bum around Mexico with a buddy. At the same time, he’s touchingly focused on learning about his grandfather’s mysterious past. Meanwhile, Anne, a single mom who works for the Los Angeles Office of Sustainability, uncharacteristically steps into a shady business venture in the hopes of funding Aaron’s education. Her brother, Ben, is an ex-Navy SEAL struggling to reintegrate in society after decades as a soldier, a career he chose partly in response to his father’s awful history.

The novels couldn’t be more different in tone — Idaho is mournful and oblique, while Freebird is forceful and direct, by turns comic and angry. Idaho takes place largely on one remote mountain, while Freebird roams the urban West, often set amid the tangle of California’s highways. Idaho is lulling in its rhythms and gorgeous imagery, while Freebird throws a glass of cold water in its readers’ faces, alerting them to government-sponsored violence and graft. Ben thinks, “This placid American life is not what it seems. It is in fact as fragile as a soap bubble, an aberration of history, and all these people … exist in their comfort only because their world is ringed with far-off sentries.”

As distinct as the two novels are, they both explore how people go on living when their pasts are shadowed by unspeakable violence.

In Ann, Ruskovich has created a striking, open-hearted protagonist, a woman who was not even present during the murder the book cycles around. She first got to know Wade when he started taking piano lessons from her several months before his family tragedy. Their mutual affection grows, and Ann insists on marrying Wade despite his dementia, the same disease that killed his father.

“I could take care of you,” she offers. As Wade’s condition deteriorates, he disciplines Ann as he would one of the dogs he trains for a living, pushing her head down and shouting, “No!” whenever one of her inadvertent actions stirs up a memory connected to his lost family.

Ruskovich’s depiction of Wade’s dementia is the strongest aspect of the book. “Together, Ann and Wade sit on the piano bench,” she writes. “She turns the pages, which every week grow simpler and simpler. One week, he’s playing both hands together. The next week, he struggles on a children’s song, with only his right hand. Slowly, as the weeks go by and the weather turns cold, she turns the pages backward.”

As Ruskovich switches perspectives and jumps around in time, the motivations of some of the characters remain frustratingly murky. There’s never a clear explanation of why Jenny deliberately murdered her child, nor is it clear why everyone in the book walks on eggshells around the now-incarcerated woman, careful not to speak of her crime. When a person does something so horrific, her own feelings are usually the last concern. Which perhaps is Ruskovich’s point — in Idaho, she has concerned herself with the kind of person that society would typically toss away and never think of again. Through her characterization of Ann, Ruskovich has embodied radical love and forgiveness.

Raymond, too, forces us to bear witness to people like Ben, the off-kilter veteran turned soldier-of-fortune, as his actions begin to defy morality and the law. He makes us contemplate the role we’ve all played in creating such damaged veterans.

Both Idaho and Freebird will awaken readers to the painful idea that our lives are shaped by a legacy of violence, no matter who we are. This is a difficult truth to face, but if we want to survive as a society, we need to confront it head-on.

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