When President Obama and his daughters paid a recent visit to a Washington, DC book store, two of his purchases were books by Idaho authors – All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer and The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. This was no fluke. Writers with Idaho roots are gaining more and more national prominence.
Earlier this week Idaho author and University of Idaho faculty member Kim Barnes was honored at the annual Governor’s Awards for the Arts with an Excellence in the Arts Award. She has also been a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Her husband, the much honored poet Robert Wrigley, also a UI faculty member, is a past recipient of the Governor’s Award. They are the first couple to be honored individually with the Governor’s Award.
On the same day that Barnes received her Governor’s Award, the New York Times arts section had a front page review of Boundary County resident Denis Johnson’s latest novel, The Laughing Monsters. Johnson has also been a Pulitzer finalist – two times. His book Train Dreams takes place in Idaho’s panhandle and won the Aga Khan Prize from the Paris Review. Train Dreams was reviewed in the New York Times by another Idaho writer, Anthony Doer.
Doer, who lives in Boise, has received wide acclaim. His latest novel, All the Light We Cannot See, occupies the number 8 spot on the Times best seller list. It has been on the list for 28 weeks. Longer than any other book currently on the list. The book was a finalist this year for the National Book Award.
Another finalist this year for the National Book Award, was Marilynne Robinson for her novel Lila. Robinson was born and raised in Sandpoint. In 2005 she won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for her book Gilead. She is currently on the faculty of the Iowa Writers Workshop, perhaps the most celebrated creative writing program in the country.
Mystery author Ridley Pearson is a part time resident of Hailey, Idaho. Pearson has written 48 novels. Many of them NY Times best sellers. His series of books featuring the fictional Sherriff Walt Fleming takes place in Sun Valley. A measure of the esteem in which he is held by other writers is his membership in the musical group Rock Bottom Remainders. Other members of the group include Amy Tan, Steven King, Dave Berry, Robert Fulghum, Barbara Kingsolver and Roy Blount Jr.
Idaho has been home to other prominent writers. Lawrence Gipson grew up in Caldwell and graduated from the University of Idaho in 1903.In 1904 he was a member of the third class of Rhodes Scholars. He became a noted historian and in 1962 won the Pulitzer Prize for History.
Mountain Home native Richard McKenna’s best known work was The Sand Pebbles. It won the 1963 Harper Prize and was made into a movie starring Steve McQueen. McQueen was nominated for the Academy Award for his performance.
Perhaps the most prolific Idaho born author was Vardis Fisher. His 1965 novel, Mountain Man, was made into the movie Jeremiah Johnson, starring Robert Redford. Much of his work was not well reviewed and was written in a style that makes it very difficult for the average reader to appreciate.
Other notable writers with Idaho ties are, of course, Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound. Hemingway died in Ketchum, twelve miles from Hailey, where Pound was born. Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, lived in both Pocatello and Parma. While living in Parma, he served a term on the city council.
But those earlier Idaho writers were few and far between. Today there is a growing group of Idaho writers gaining national prominence. With the highly respected creative writing program at the University of Idaho, and another getting established at Boise State University. we can expect to see these numbers grow in the coming years. It is something in which all of us should take pride.
Marty Peterson is a native of the Lewiston Clarkston Valley. He is retired and lives in Boise.Share on Facebook