The Idaho Bookshelf

Countless bookshelves can be filled with all the relevant and engaging books written about the history and lives of this remote slice of America. Add in books written by authors whose work is deeply informed by the Idaho experience, and those shelves start to groan. Novels and histories, memoirs and short stories bring to life the dusty little farm towns and lush mountain villages that embody the Idaho imagination. They also give a sharp focus to the events that shaped contemporary Idaho.

Van Gordon Sauter delves into this rich bibliography.

Sun Valley:
An Extraordinary History
By Wendolyn Holland, The Idaho Press, 1998

The single most important book for any bookshelf in the Wood River Valley, home to the famous Sun Valley, is Wendolyn Holland’s Sun Valley: An Extraordinary History.

This smashing coffee table book tells the history of Sun Valley through both text and more than 700 historical photos. A classy, accessible and indispensable book, Sun Valley is the ideal Christmas gift for anyone who loves photography, history or this valley.

Big Trouble: A murder in a small
Western town sets off a struggle for the soul of America
By J. Anthony Lukas, Simon & Schuster, 1997

In 1905 a large, burly man—a former governor of Idaho and president of a family-owned Caldwell bank—walked after work through a fresh snow to his grand home on the outskirts of town. He opened the front gate and triggered a hidden bomb.

The explosion nearly tore off both legs and left his body horribly mangled. He later died, the victim of revenge by union extremists for his official role in subduing labor unrest in the mining communities of Idaho.

The murder became emblematic of a class conflict across America that in retrospect seems far more intense than the struggles today between pitchfork populists and the capitalist establishment.

The story of Frank Steunenberg (and the trial of four union officials charged with killing him) stars attorney Clarence Darrow for the defense, Pinkerton private detective James McParland (who rooted the murderous Molly McGuires out of the anthracite mines of Pennsylvania) and radical William D. Haywood (founder of the notorious and incendiary unionists known as the Wobblies).

Big Trouble is overly long, but judicious speed-reading keeps the focus on the dramatic core story, and the feeling of a nation under great tension. At its core is a breathtaking portrayal of Idaho a century ago.

We Sagebrush Folks
By Annie Pike Greenwood,
D. Appleton-Century Co., Inc., 1934

Ninety minutes south of here, speeding down the windswept two-lane highways of Idaho’s sagebrush country, drivers occasionally pass the desolate remains of a homesteader’s cabin—bleached, splayed wood, collapsed roofs, the skeletal remains of a farm vehicle, its purpose now unfathomable. One instinctively presumes anguish and failure, and not inaccurately.

Homestead farming—as portrayed in the remarkable memoir We Sagebrush Folk—was not for the faint of heart. Annie Pike Greenwood was the well-educated-for-the-time daughter of a distinguished psychiatrist. Her husband was the son of a successful German family. They fought the elements and the earth for years without success. With four children, unending chores, no money, limited water and dispiriting weather, she waged a battle for success, and recorded it—initially in articles for The Nation and Atlantic Monthly.

Greenwood had great humor and penetrating insight. She was even frank enough to include a chapter titled Sex, a chilling portrayal of intimate life in a rural, masculine dominated world. There is no Hollywood ending to this book. She and most of her children survived with relative grace. But they were scarred. And the reader will be in awe of the people who first came to this land and prepared a way for the rest.

RED WATER, and others
Judith Freeman, Anchor, 2003

The graceful old Fairfield train station, long decommissioned, currently serves as the town’s colorful and engaging museum. Attending on the correct day pays off with a greeting by an attractive, thoughtful woman who loves the anecdotes of history. She should.

Judith Freeman, who lives part of the year in an old Fairfield homesteader’s cabin with her husband, photographer Anthony Hernandes, is one of the nation’s finest, most versatile writers.

Her novel Red Water tells the stories of three of the 19 wives of an extremist Mormon who engineered the 1857 massacre of more than 100 pioneers in a wagon train heading for California. It is a gripping story, a can’t-put-down read.

Freeman’s most recent book, The Long Embrace: Raymond Chandler and the Woman He Loved (Pantheon, 2007), is the story of author Raymond Chandler and his much older wife (she lied about her age). It is a remarkable portrait of a couple and Los Angeles, in their time and ours. The New York Times said, “Ms. Freeman knows the territory as well as (Chandler’s iconic private detective character, Philip) Marlow himself. She feels the language and captures the mood.”

Set For Life (W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1980) is an engrossing picture of people—the good and the ugly—in a small, remote Idaho town.

Coming home to Sawtooth Valley
By John Rember, Pantheon, 2003

With deep roots in Stanley and the Sawtooths, John Rember has written one of the best books—arguably, the best book—about life in this part of Idaho.

It is a marvelous memoir of a boy growing up in a then distant, isolated and hardscrabble Stanley, learning to hunt, trap and fish, and to find his own identity. The relationship between Rember and his parents—the trapper father, the self-reliant mother—is exhilarating.

His is a voyage of self discovery and Rember’s elegant writing makes it a joy for all of us. Harvard educated and writer-at-large of The College of Idaho, Rember still lives and writes in the Stanley Basin.

Next installment: Reviews of Diane Peavey, Charles Brandt, Denis Johnson, Marilyn Robinson and Peggy Goldwyn.

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