The title, Godforsaken Idaho, is attention-grabbing, to say the least. Admittedly, it was the reason I picked this book up off the shelf and cracked it open. Thankfully, author Shawn Vestal, raised in Southern Idaho under the Mormon faith, did not disappoint.
Godforsaken Idaho is a collection of nine surprising, sharp and poignant short stories, all set in or around Idaho. Vestal’s pages are populated with themes of dreamy yearning, violence, the complexity of faith, family, Mormonism, resilience and Idaho landscape. His characters vary from liars, fathers and missionaries to murderers, celestial beings and every day couples. As these characters traverse Idaho with their different dreams and goals, they struggle with their own versions of faith, illuminating even the darkest of narratives with humor, blistering frankness and wit.
“Winter Elders,” the sixth story in Vestal’s debut collection, features Bradshaw, an ex-Mormon of 12 years whose tension with two persistent Mormon missionaries ends in violence. Bradshaw, father to a new baby boy, deals with the stress of balancing his own internal cynicism toward the world with the pressures of being a father, a seemingly joyful and optimistic life experience. This newfound frustration is released on Elder Pope and Elder Warren as they visit each day. When the two break into Bradshaw’s garage, borrow and rake and collect the leaves from Bradshaw’s front lawn, Bradshaw grabs the rake handle from Pope in a telling moment: “Pope held firm for a second, smile widening — in surprise or malevolence, Bradshaw couldn’t tell — then let go, sending Bradshaw backward one step. Pope shrugged sheepishly. ‘Sorry,’ he said.” Instead of swinging the rake at Pope’s head, Bradshaw sends the two away silently.
New Harvest (April 2013)
After a huge winter storm, the missionaries ask if they can warm up in Bradshaw’s home. When Pope begins to ask Bradshaw about the Book of Mormon, Bradshaw’s quick criticism escalates into a hot-faced, loud admonishment. As the missionaries leave, Pope professes his testimony for the Book of Mormon once again, leaving Bradshaw with a conflict: “Bradshaw felt an emotional swell… it was not that Pope was right and he was wrong, and not that Pope was wrong and he was right. It was that Pope had something he could not have, and he would spend his life not having it.” The harassment from the missionaries continues until Bradshaw finally reacts, resulting in a surprising twist. This story was among the most powerful of the collection, addressing many complicated issues of faith, and more importantly, the absence of faith and how it feels to have a community from one’s past resurface without one’s consent.
One of the most fascinating techniques Vestal uses is the manipulation of time. The stories in Godforsaken Idaho work backward through time. The first, called “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death,” occurs in the year 2613 and the final story in the collection, “Diviner,” is set in 1825. This technique creates a tension between the book’s modern critique of religion and its speculative admiration of ancient faith.
Vestal reflects on the nature of purposelessness and emptiness in “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death” This story imagines a kind of hellish heaven, where characters’ age at death is their age forever, the only food they eat are the meals from their lives, and the dead relive moments from their lives forever. The protagonist tells us, “There is no peace here. All the trappings of peace, yes, all the silence and emptiness, but those are just shells. If you want peace, you have to find it in the life you left behind.” The protagonist spends much of the story desperately searching through memories for the perfect moment in his life. He finds it in a moment alone on a bridge, chain smoking cigarettes two weeks after his wife has left him.
“Diviner” jumps back to a different time of isolation, just before the formation of the Mormon Church. Joseph Smith visits the protagonist’s farm in search of a prophesized treasure. The protagonist, a farmer who has recently lost his wife and now lives alone with his daughter, Emma, reluctantly agrees to allow Smith to stay with him during the treasure hunt. A review from L.A. Review of Books. The narrator is a skeptic of most organized religion and remains distant and critical of Smith’s actions on the farm. Smith spends days reading stones and interpreting visions of where the treasure is buried, and after enlisting the help of several neighbors in the area he begins the hunt.
Weeks pass, and as the treasure still isn’t discovered word spreads throughout the town that Smith is a false prophet. Smith says the treasure is sinking farther into the earth and only faith will resurface it. The protagonist becomes aware of a relationship developing between Emma and Smith as the hunt continues, which worries him. The narrator adores his daughter for her wit and intelligence and dreads the thought of her leaving him for a manipulative figure. After an angry mob of townspeople demanding payment for their time tar and feather Smith, Emma is drawn to him even more, eventually running away with Smith and marrying him. The narrator, left alone, cannot handle the severe isolation. He agrees to move in with Emma and Smith as Smith begins to start a new church.
This theme of isolation as it relates to faith (and a lack of faith) emerge throughout this complex and tightly-written book. At times, the bitterness of the narrative can be overwhelming, but the variety of characters and the illuminating, vibrant prose is enough to balance this problem out. Vestal tests your patience, presenting several unlikable narrators in stories like “Families are Forever!” and “Pocket Dog” who ask important questions about why faith is important, why families hurt each other and what about the landscape of Idaho shapes religion. Vestal focuses on the heretics and the denouncers and the dissenters to answer these questions, a challenging task that provides a center of gravity for the book.
Some of these questions remain unanswered, even in Vestal’s life. Vestal answers a question about why we aim to forgive the people that hurt us, especially when they are family, in an interview with Interview Magazine. He says, “Without what we’ve done and who we’ve been, we aren’t anything. People who we share memories and experience and love with, at the end of the day, those are the people who are important to me. Not whether I think they’re wrong about the meaning of life or they think I’m wrong about the meaning of life. I hope.” This thought rings true throughout the collection. From a haunting heaven to a pioneer perspective, we are asked to question everything we think is true.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.