The Empress of Idaho

By Ali Bryan

by Todd Babiak
McLelland & Stewart
2019/$24.95/336 pp.

I loved Edmonton author Todd Babiak’s The Empress of Idaho. Set in Monument, Colorado, it features all the hallmarks of a small-town America coming-of-age story in the late ’80s, complete with weary single mothers, hard-talking football coaches and caricatured cops. A time when boys pumped gas and rich girls played tennis. When Cadillacs ruled, VHS tapes rolled and status was literally defined by what side of the tracks one’s house—or trailer—was parked on.

For the 14-year-old protagonist, Adam Lisinski, hopeful football star, dutiful son and patient boyfriend, it’s the wrong side—the dinner’s-in-the-microwave, mind-the-junk-in-the-yard side. That is, until the mysterious, almost 40-year-old Beatrice Cyr arrives in town, in high heels no less, and marries Adam’s kind yet vaguely disgusting neighbour Marv.

The self-proclaimed “Empress of Idaho,” with a shady past, charms everyone in town and seduces Adam. Babiak gets this part right, keeping the story on the correct side of the moral tracks, by not going into Mary Kay Letourneau mode. A forbidden romance isn’t implied even when the victim is absorbed by the possibility. Beatrice is a sexual predator and is sketched as such. She grooms, manipulates and intimidates, using her power to control and harm. When the whole town finds out, the time period and subsequent lack of social media and current-day disconnectedness make the consequences seem decidedly more intimate, shameful and heartbreaking. How Babiak can create that sentiment is a testament not just to the novel’s carefully curated time and place but to the author’s exquisitely crafted characters, Adam in particular.

Babiak portrays the confusion and vulnerability of adolescence with accuracy and heart. He manages to show the ambivalence that erupts when boyhood and adulthood are thrust up against each other, whether behind the fridge door, on the football field or at the police station. Perhaps this book resonated because I’ve spent considerable time (ironically in Idaho) in towns like Monument and I’m raising a boy on the cusp of adolescence. It felt real; it felt right. So when Babiak delivers the novel’s fourth-quarter twist and we learn what really happened to Beatrice Cyr when she up and disappeared from Monument, I was left satisfied on a primordial level.

This book could have been trope-y and contrived. It isn’t. And though some of the characters risk cliché, Babiak throws a few literary interceptions to rattle the game, the Can-lit game included. Babiak’s writing is always good, witty and human in the best way, but The Empress of Idaho shines like a playoff game under Friday night lights. A huge win.

Ali Bryan’s latest novel is The Figgs (Freehand, 2018).

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