I’ve never given Idaho much thought. I know it’s there, and every once in a while I trick myself into thinking that my cousin’s wife is from there, but then I go, “Oh, right. Iowa. But they’re probably more-or-less interchangeable, right?” This only goes to show that Canadians can be just as ignorant of America as Americans are supposed to be of Canada. (Take that, self-righteous Canadian stereotyping.)
All of which is to say that I was long overdue to read some kind of love letter to Idaho, which The Girls of No Return most definitely is. It’s told from the point-of-view of Lida, who has lived all her life in the state, but only truly comes to appreciate its natural majesty when she is sent to the Alice Marshall School for Girls in the heart of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness Area. (That is a real place! It was not just made up for metaphorical resonance!) Of course, checking out the pretty nature is not what brings Lida to the school. Like nearly all the girls at Alice Marshall, she has been sent there by parents who could no longer handle her particular set of vices. Bad girls (most of them rich) come to Alice Marshall from all over the country, and most of them seem to enjoy airing their dirty laundry. There are exceptions: friendless Lida, peppy Jules, legitimately terrifying Boone, and glamourous Gia. While the others pour their hearts out about the sex, drugs, and sexy drug addled boys that have been their undoing, these four hold back–except, of course, when it comes to fueling drama amongst each other.
As somebody who has limited patience with landscape lit (yet another Canadian stereotype I fail to fulfill), I thought Saldin did a good job of providing just enough detail to make the reader see the wilderness and fall in love with it, but not get bored with it. The novel focuses more on the relationships among the girls, which are complex and fraught with sexual tension, deception, and class differences. That is not to say that the setting is in any way incidental: plot, and even character, are often determined by the wilderness that lies on the other side of the mountain.
There are chunks of “Epilogue” distributed throughout the book: brief passages still told from Lida’s point-of-view, but a different Lida from the one we come to know through the main text. This is the Lida of later. She’s the Lida who first truly drew me into the story, from the devastatingly true passage: “Parents are too easily frightened by the world their children live in. We have to protect them from harm, keep them safe as long as we can, no matter how we feel about them. It’s our duty. I didn’t know this going in, but I do now.” Future Lida promises a good story, even as her past counterpart seems intent on having as little as possible happen—and of course, ultimately, as it always does, the future wins out in an explosive conclusion. The Girls of No Return is a hopeful book, but not unreasonably so. It is a difficult delight to go along with Lida as she maps the terrain that is herself, faults and all.
Laura Forsythe resides in Kingston, Ontario where she is always slouching and usually singing crude songs about household tasks, but she doesn’t draw on her hands as much as she used to, so they may make an adult of her yet. She keeps a blog about books and junk at http://ohmynoti.blog.com/