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Book review: Godforsaken Idaho: Stories by Shawn Vestal
5/29/2013

Review by Dan Pringle
Liberty Lake Municipal Library

Local author Shawn Vestal's short stories paint a pessimistic portrait of life. Most are set in Idaho or closely tied to it, but they range in time from the 1830s to the present day. The title story is a dispiriting tale of a lonely man who finds a life to match his emptiness at the end of a cul-de-sac in an unnamed Idaho town. 

Two of the stories are narrated by souls who have passed into the hereafter. In "The First Several Hundred Years Following My Death," a father tries to reunite his family in an absurd imagining of the afterlife. In the longest story, "Opposition in All Things," the soul of a Mormon killed resisting the Test-Oath Act in the 1880s awakens in a limbo in which he is a witness to a World War I veteran outside Pocatello struggling to return to everyday life. The thwarted soul, whose religious vigor in life had not met its heavenly reward, eventually manages to compel the vet to wage his own religious protestation.

The consequences of our actions-and conversely, the inconsequentiality of many lives-are major themes for Vestal. His characters wrestle with religion, family and the search for some substitute in a world with no easy answers. They are deadbeats, liars, thieves, religious seekers and religious doubters. Most are seen through the lens of the author's Mormon upbringing. 

In the final stories, including "Opposition in All Things," characters deal directly with the author's own issues with faith. An anxious young father-to-be fixates on a pair of missionaries who defy his bitterness. A family of settlers faces a plague of insects threatening their farms. In "Diviner," Joseph Smith appears in his pre-Prophet career.

Despite his cynicism, Vestal's stories are enjoyable, though some deal with the seedier side of life. His writing is strong, often funny, and at times includes remarkable passages of description and movingly illustrates how difficult it is to be human.

Dan Pringle is the adult services and reference librarian at the Liberty Lake Municipal Library. 

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