A slap of Western reality

  "Piety, kitsch, self-importance, sentimentalism - these deadly literary sins seem to thrive on good clean country air," writes William Finnegan in his foreword to William Gruber's book, On All Sides Nowhere. Finnegan hails Gruber for avoiding these sins in his memoir of life in northern Idaho.

In 1972, Gruber and his wife moved from Philadelphia to Alder Creek, "an area sparsely settled even for Idaho," seeking "ascetic isolation from the press of human culture." Instead, in his quest for backcountry solitude, the author gains a sense of community, and learns survival skills ranging from backwoods logging to car repair.

Gruber lauds the ingenuity, frugality and endurance of his wry and wily neighbors, and writes proudly of their acceptance of him and his wife. As years pass, the author gains his own set of backwoods sensibilities, and defends shooting grizzlies and "wildcat logging" - the removal of downed timber from lands owned by timber companies, railroads and the government. Although Gruber is busy earning his graduate degree at the University of Idaho, and later a doctorate from Washington State, he learns more at home at Alder Creek and in the woods than he does in lecture halls.

After seven years, Gruber, his wife and their two daughters - both born in Idaho - leave when he is offered a teaching position at a college in Illinois. While he does not sell his cabin, Gruber's relationship with Alder Creek and Idaho diminishes, and he and his family are demoted to "summer people."

But even if Gruber's life and stories from Alder Creek stand above kitsch and sentimentalism, his book is still a self-proclaimed "love song." Alder Creek infects Gruber, and he reminisces of "a Western environment that was in some ways more cinematic than actual." Despite full immersion in the naked elements of a backwoods life, Western romance still colors his thoughts and life.

On All Sides Nowhere, William Gruber. Houghton Mifflin Company, Mariner Books, New York, N.Y., 2002. Softcover: $12. 126 pages. Winner, Bakeless Prize, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference.
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