Writer builds cabin as balm for midlife angst

“Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine” (Viking), by Lou Ureneck

Cabin fever often sets in by mid-February in the wilds of Maine, when hip-deep snowdrifts make it tough to get around and hanging around the house in the short hours of daylight can make you stir-crazy.

Lou Ureneck, however, was suffering from a different strain of cabin fever, an urge to overcome the knocks and disappointments of middle age by building a post-and-beam cabin in the Maine woods. This undertaking, on which he worked on and off for the better part of two years, is the basis for his second memoir that delves into his childhood, professional life, failed marriage and familial relationships.

Ureneck, a former newspaper reporter and editor who now teaches journalism at Boston University, takes on the building project with the assistance of his younger brother, Paul, the construction manager for a commercial real estate firm and himself in a shaky marriage. With their shared history, the partnership goes beyond framing walls and putting up rafters.

“When you get around to reassembling your life, as I was doing, it’s good to have someone at your side who remembers how the parts once fit together,” Ureneck writes in “Cabin.”

The author is no tyro in the use of a hammer and saw. His first book, about a salmon fishing trip along a wild Alaska river to reconnect with his estranged son, touches upon how he and Paul built a post-and-beam Cape Cod outside Portland decades earlier.

Ureneck’s latest book has none of the tense episodes of the first. There are no standoffs with 1,000-pound bears or canoe rides through treacherous waters. Instead, the action in “Cabin” involves the search for an affordable lot that takes him to tiny Stoneham in the foothills of the White Mountains, the decision to settle for precast concrete piers for the foundation, the assembly of the frame and the various other tasks needed to complete the project.

Just as Ureneck’s first book was as much about fatherhood as fishing, this memoir blends reflections on both family ties and carpentry.

The account of the building project, some of which appeared in a New York Times blog, pleasantly digresses at times into an appreciation of the flora and fauna surrounding the author’s new retreat. Alone in the still-roofless cabin on a spring night, he responds to a commotion that draws him to a nearby pond to find two male Canada geese locked in combat for the affections of a female. The book also meanders into the history of Stoneham, recounting how the Wabanaki Indians were driven off by English settlers as well as the town’s subsequent decline after many of its young men left for greener pastures after the Civil War.

Readers with cabin fever of their own who may be looking for a “how-to” book may draw an idea or two from Ureneck’s story. But a broader audience interested in the bonds of family and how they evolve may come away with even more.

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