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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

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.)

The one tonic capable of elevating Ureneck’s mood is his link to the wild, a relationship that is woven into his earliest memories and throughout the book. As a boy living on the New Jersey shore, Ureneck would rise before dawn and, “in the dark or the magical half-light of a winter morning,” trap muskrat and raccoons in the marshes near Barnegat Bay. As an adult, on his frequent forays into the woods around his Maine cabin site, Ureneck — often borne by snowshoes — rekindles his connection with nature and comes face to face with the geese, deer, grouse and beaver that are denizens of his sylvan backyard.

If regret colors Ureneck’s reflections on the past, an ever-expanding sense of purpose and optimism animates his account of the cabin’s construction. The author’s hard-earned resilience shines through as he shrugs off the occasional setback — footer holes flooded by November rains, rafters flattened by March winds — and gets on with such everyday immediacies as pounding nails and leveling walls.

He also nicely captures the local building crew. There’s 76-year-old excavator Bill Parmenter, for example, “six feet of sunburned sinew” who doubles as a dowser: Parmenter uses a handheld metal rod to help Ureneck locate a source of water on his property. There are fond portraits of the patrons of Melby’s, a country restaurant where Ureneck often ate breakfast. “Hard luck and hard work,” he concludes, are “facts of life in this remote corner of Maine.”

“The cost of a thing,” Thoreau wrote in Walden, “is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it.” Thoreau’s investment in his cabin on Walden Pond paid off in insight and perspective. Ureneck profits in a similar vein when, near the end of Cabin, his extended family gathers for a Thanksgiving feast inside the all-but-completed structure. There the author finally resembles a man at peace, full of hope as he faces the snowy world glimmering outside his cabin windows.

David Brill is the author of As Far as the Eye Can See: Reflections of an Appalachian Trail Hiker and Desire & Ice: A Search for Perspective atop Denali, which chronicled his bid to summit North America’s highest peak at age 45. He has written for National Geographic Traveler, Men’s Health, and many other national magazines.