Idaho Winter begins as the story of a boy with an extraordinarily painful existence. He is, through no fault of his own, loathed by everyone in the town where he lives. His father, Early Winter, feeds him roadkill for breakfast. The crossing guard steers cars toward him as he crosses the road. Parents encourage their children to plot cruelly against him. One morning Idaho finds it too much to bear and hides down by the river where he meets Madison. Madison, astonishingly, is as hurt by how he's treated as he is. For the first time in his life Idaho experiences someone's empathy and it opens a terrible world of pain in him. He dotes on Madison, in awe of her, and he cleans her muddy feet in the river, drying them with his shirt. Suddenly, hunting dogs descend on the scene and, trained to attack the smell of Idaho, set their jaws on Madison's feet.
Then Idaho does something that changes everything. He gets up and runs home. Not so strange until the author realizes that this part was never written. Idaho becomes enraged upon learning that his suffering has been cruelly designed by a clumsy writer who confesses that he made his book meaner than all the others so it would stand out. Idaho locks the author in a closet and runs off, armed with the knowledge that the entire world is invented and that he has the power now to imagine it differently.
When the author emerges from the closet he finds that his novel is now unrecognizable. Phantoms and monsters, beasts from the boy's angry thoughts now dominate the streets. Beneath the earth there is a resistance movement of secondary characters, including the poor Madison who is now bedridden and what's more: anyone who comes within 50 feet of her is paralyzed with sadness and cannot move or be moved. The author sets out with these characters to cure the novel, to find a way to bring its mind and heart together as they embark on a journey as perilous and paradoxical as anything HG Wells or Lewis Carroll ever imagined.
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