Boston: New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013
ISBN 978-05440-2776-3, paperback
209 pages, $15.95
When I first saw Shawn Vestal’s book with its picture of Joseph Smith on the cover and its title, Godforsaken Idaho, my first thought was “Hey, that’s where I grew up. What a great title.” By the time I got about half way through this collection of nine short stories, I was thinking that an alternative title could have been “Godforsaken Families.”
The pivotal story in this collection is the first one, “The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death.” In it the protagonist, Rex, experiences an afterlife filled with trips to the cafeteria, reunions with deceased family members, and a quest through his own past to find wonderful events that he can relive. What he finds, though, is a troubled search that starts with a hunt for perfect days and then degrades into a search for “great afternoons” or “great nights” (13-14) until he’d be satisfied with finding “One great hour”(18). Eventually Rex concedes that “you find it hard to land in a single untroubled moment. Every second is crowded with life, with misery and anxiety that just won’t be stomped down” (14). And by the end of the story he settles on a moment that “lasts thirteen minutes and forty-seven seconds” (26) as he stands smoking cigarettes on the Perrine bridge in Twin Falls.
What makes this first story so pivotal is the way Vestal connects his nine of stories through a significant family event – a dinner. After he’s been dead for a few hundred years, Rex attempts to have a large reunion dinner with his ex-wife and children who have also died. His plan to have dinner with just his immediate family falls apart when grand-children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and nieces are also invited. During this dinner he finds himself surrounded by many members of his family, the Todds, and his ex-wife’s family, the Warrens. What makes this so important is that many of these characters appear again as the reader progresses further into the collection – finally meeting Joseph Smith himself in the final story entitled, “Diviner.” Rex says that he conceives of the family dinner idea 326 years after his death, so from first story to last covers about 500 years of his family’s history of bad decisions in chronological order from the future into the past. Sara Warren, Rex’s great-great-grandmother, appears again in “Gulls” debating with herself as to whether or not to become one of Bishop Warren’s wives during the 1848 “miracle of the gulls.” Sara is also mentioned in passing in “Families are Forever.” And Rulon Warren, is the central character of “Opposition in all Things” which takes place in Franklin, Idaho, a few years after WWI. Somewhere in each story is some small link to the first story that gives this collection an overarching continuity that I wasn’t expecting in any author’s first published story collection.
In the third story in the collection, “Families are Forever,” the narrator describes his girlfriend’s parent’s house and an ornate sign in their dining room “done up in curlicues: FAMILIES ARE FOREVER” and then he adds that this message “sounded like a threat” (49). This threatening notion is a theme that the book keeps circling back to – but I don’t want readers to get the impression that Vestal is saying that families are a bad thing. This book is really an open-ended examination of the complex and, often, poor choices made by the protagonists and how their family history influences those choices and how those choices influence the future of their families.
Since this review is for The Idaho Librarian, I’ll throw in a warning that this book is not without controversy. Many of the book’s critics are labeling it as “anti-Mormon” because Vestal is a former member of the LDS church, and many of the book’s less than moral characters are also LDS, therefore, according to these critics, the book is anti-LDS. My personal response to that criticism is that the characters in this book are not being held up as examples of perfect moral behavior. I can’t think of any religion that would hope for their members to act the way these characters act. The protagonists in these stories are surrounded by bad choices and poor examples that they think they are unable to overcome. It is a very dark book, frequently moving, and often hilarious with great moments of insight into some very difficult families.
I would certainly recommend this book to any academic or public library interested in developing its collection of Idaho or Pacific Northwest authors.
George Williams is the Access Services Manager at Latah County Library District.