Who Tells Your Story?

Idaho’s Acclaimed Writers and What They Haven’t Done

Published online: Sep 22, 2021 Articles, Lifestyle, Looking Back Jeff Carr
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Perhaps you’ve noticed: people on the outside often don’t know what to make of Idaho. Its identity is hazy, vaguely shaped by mountains and potatoes and—on a bad day—its politics. Even on the inside, we don’t always know what to make of Idaho. We live here, and yet, we’re hard-pressed to say what makes it special. At the Museum of Idaho, we submit that one reason for this lack of clarity is simple: a lack of storytelling.

Storytelling is everything. It impacts which products you buy, which teams you cheer for, how you present yourself on dates and in job interviews. If a politician or a salesperson can tell a story that lines up with the stories you tell about yourself, they’ll likely get your vote, regardless of what they’re actually selling. We take our cues from the best storytellers, so naturally, popular stories about places tend to impact how we see those places. If you’ve watched In the Heights or Seinfeld or read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, you understand part of New York, even if you’ve never been there. 

Our surrounding states each have very place-specific stories: A River Runs Through It, Longmire, Big Love, The Hangover, Portlandia, Twilight, just to name a few. And we have… not much. Napoleon Dynamite and Tara Westover’s memoir Educated, perhaps. Both are set near Preston, at least in part. Both wonderful, but unflattering.

This lack of geographic representation in pop culture and literature is not for lack of local talent. Incredible storytellers have found inspiration in Idaho. Most famously, Ernest Hemingway, one of the 20th century’s most important writers, spent large portions of his life in the Wood River Valley, and rests in Ketchum to this day. At the Sun Valley Lodge, he finished For Whom the Bell Tolls, which is of course set… in Spain. Hemingway loved Idaho and wrote about it here and there, like in a eulogy for an Idaho acquaintance: “Best of all, he loved the fall, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams. And above the hills, the high, blue windless skies. Now he will be a part of them forever.” But his stories tended to whisk readers to western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean.

Edgar Rice Burroughs spent significant time in Idaho, including in Pocatello and Raft River. He wrote more than 60 books and is most famous for creating the character “Tarzan of the Apes,” who does not set foot here. Carol Ryrie Brink grew up in Moscow and wrote Caddie Woodlawn, a frontier story about Wisconsin. The poet Ezra Pound was born in Hailey, left soon, and never looked back – which is probably just as well.

Wilson Rawls wrote one of the most popular children’s books of the 20th century right here in Idaho Falls. He had always wanted to be a writer, but his limited formal education in the Ozarks left him with terrible spelling and grammar. Rawls moved to the region in 1956 to work at the Atomic Energy Commission, living first in a cabin at Mud Lake, then on 11th Street in I.F. In 1958, he burned his manuscripts out of embarrassment so his fiancée, Sophie Styczinski, would never see them. When he confessed to this after their wedding, she begged him to re-write one, which he did from memory in 3 feverish weeks. Styczinski edited it and prepared it for publication. That book, Where the Red Fern Grows, has sold millions of copies and is now required reading in many American schools. Written in Idaho Falls, or at least re-written. And famous for its loving depiction of…the Ozarks.

In recent years, acclaimed Idaho authors Brady Udall and Anthony Doerr have penned bestsellers about other places. The trend continues.

What does this all mean? If you’re a storyteller, maybe this represents an opportunity – Idaho is still uniquely malleable, waiting to be shaped and interpreted. We at MOI certainly think so. For most of the world, though, it probably just means that the story of Idaho is a mystery. 

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