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Rebuilding a Life — in the Woods

After a string of setbacks, a journalist reassembles his life in the mountains of Maine

Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine by Lou Ureneck

Henry David Thoreau’s cabin on Walden Pond created the prototype for a quintessentially American building form — and existence. To this day, Thoreau’s rough dwelling stirs a yen for escape to a simpler, less-cluttered lifestyle, particularly among stressed-out urbanites.

Count author Lou Ureneck as a member of that group. The 61-year-old Boston University journalism professor had been buffeted by loss in the new millennium: His 20-year marriage ended in 2000, his mother died in 2002 and his job as a newspaper editor in Philadelphia was terminated in 2003.

In January 2008, Ureneck’s search for an antidote to the “knockdowns and disappointments of middle age” led him to Stoneham, Maine, a rural community in the lee of the White Mountains. There, $32,000 bought him 5.5 acres — and a platform for staging what he hoped would be his midlife resurrection. How Ureneck built his sanctuary in the woods — a 640-square-foot timber-frame cabin — and managed to reassemble his life is the subject of his poignant, sometimes painful Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine.

As the subtitle suggests, Ureneck did not exactly throw up the structure unaided: He found a worthy and skilled sidekick in his younger brother, Paul, the construction manager for a real-estate firm in nearby Portland, Maine. Throughout the book, Paul plays the sturdy and sometimes-gruff driver to Lou’s sensitive and vulnerable plodder — a dynamic stemming from their fraught boyhood. Paul’s three sons, the oldest recently returned from the war in Iraq, lend their brawn to the project, while their interactions with Uncle Lou afford touching glimpses of his family’s devotion to the author.

Ureneck’s cabin was not the brothers’ first exercise in bonding via building. Thirty years earlier, they had constructed Lou’s marital home, a “simple, honest, mostly square” Cape Cod located 45 minutes outside Portland, where Lou then worked as a newspaper editor.

Though Cabin abounds with the sort of construction minutiae that would feel right at home in Tracy Kidder’s House, it also overflows with details of the author’s “melancholic side” as he mulls life’s reversals. To his credit, this scrutiny of the past is consistently unvarnished — and frequently insightful. Paul and Lou’s father “disappeared” when the author was just 7 years old. Their mother, a hairdresser, tried her best to shepherd them smoothly through childhood, but the family was “always broke and on the move”: By Ureneck’s count she uprooted the boys 17 times, typically in response to eviction notices.

The boys’ stepfather, a Navy veteran (and alcoholic) named Johnny Kababick, served as a mercurial but good-hearted surrogate. His presence brought “a brief period of calm,” Ureneck recalls, until he too departed while Ureneck was away at the University of New Hampshire.

Ureneck’s trauma-tinged personal history seems to have seeped into the very joists and rafters of his cabin. In the mid-1990s, as his marriage began to unravel (and before he moved to Philadelphia), Ureneck felled the pine trees surrounding his home outside Portland and had them fashioned into the sturdy posts and beams that would one day frame his cabin. (Miraculously, he managed to store most of them in framing-worthy shape in Paul’s backyard for more than a decade.)

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