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September 23, 2002

Gruber fondly recalls Idaho life in new memoir

By Michael Terrazas

Every year people ask me where I spend the summer,” writes Bill Gruber in his new book, On All Sides Nowhere: Building a Life in Rural Idaho. “I say ‘Idaho,’ and I can tell by the emptiness of their faces that my answer put them in a state of social uneasiness.”

Once they compose themselves, Gruber continues, most people nod politely and make a comment about potatoes or separatist movements.

Idaho may be a mystery to most Americans, but to Gruber, professor and chair of English, it is a place he has known intimately since he and his wife bought 40 acres there in 1972. On All Sides Nowhere (Mariner Books, August 2002) is a slim collection of essays that together document why the Grubers chose Idaho (the answer: Gregory Peck, in On the Beach) and why, 30 years later, they find themselves returning most every summer.

“I thought that I wanted to live like Thoreau,” Gruber says now, reflecting on the emotions that carried him to Idaho in the first place. “And I discovered that that was not what I wanted at all, and I’m glad I didn’t get it.”

Instead of a pastoral idyll far removed from the daily grind of humanity, what Gruber got was a heavy dose of humanity, albeit delivered along gravel roads and across far greater distances than his more urban upbringing prepared him for. Instead of finding himself removed from the demands of social lives, Gruber found himself becoming more sociable than ever.

“The real scholastic benefit of living there was being immersed in what turned out to be a community,” says Gruber, who while living in Alder Creek— near the town of St. Maries in the Idaho panhandle— commuted first to the University of Idaho in Moscow for his master’s and later to Washington State University in Pullman for his PhD.

“Even though people would have been as physically remote as Stone Mountain is from Emory, we considered each other friends and neighbors,” Gruber says of his fellow Alder Creek residents. “People who you might not otherwise have had occasion to deal with, you were thrown into a mix with them where you had to get along, for everybody’s good. It’s hard to stay mad at somebody when you know they may be the very people you depend on next week to pull you out of the snow bank.”

Indeed, On All Sides Nowhere is filled with tales of the more expected daily affairs of a rural existence—cutting and collecting firewood, baling hay, reveling in nature—but it is the people of Alder Creek that bring the memoir alive, both for Gruber’s readers and, one suspects, for Gruber himself.

“I wrote it out of a sense of responsibility that I owed something to them in that place,” Gruber says. “I guess what has been most rewarding is the feeling that I’ve settled a debt, of sorts, but not a debt in any monetary sense.”

The book is a first foray into non-scholarly writing for Gruber, who specializes in drama as literature, and it is quite a debut; On All Sides Nowhere won the Bakeless Prize for Nonfiction from the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.

Though he’s not sure he’ll write the same kind of book again, Gruber said he very much enjoyed the experience of writing essays. If his affection is anything that he carries for Alder Creek, one expects there will be more books to follow.

“I moved away from Alder Creek in 1979,” Gruber writes in the preface. “As for the places since then, they all seem hitched on, somehow lacking in substance and authenticity. Anywhere else, no matter how long the sojourn, I’ve been there unconvinced and unbelieving.

“If you ask me, I’ll say that I’ve been there only on assignment.”