One Mainer’s Cabin
A former editor of a Maine newspaper finds solace and struggles in building a new life in the woods.
- By: Michael Burke
To build a cabin in the woods.
What could make a better topic for a book? Who hasn’t stirred at the thought of building, then sitting quietly in, a spartan cabin in the Maine woods? To a certain audience, this is a topic that can’t fail.
Lou Ureneck, in his new book, simply and appropriately titled Cabin: Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine (Viking/Penguin, New York, New York; hardcover; 256 pages; $25.95) does more, of course, than tell the tale of building his cabin in the woods in Stoneham, near Center Lovell, hard by the New Hampshire border.
As a good memoirist should, he complicates the basic tale and transcends his subject by twisting together the back story of how he came to need to build this cabin, what role his brother played in building it, the story of their youth and upbringing, and ruminations on the author’s sense of self.
Ureneck, a former editor of the Portland Press Herald, begins the book at a moment of uncertainty, following several life-changing events: divorce, the death of a parent, his children now adults, and relocation from an editorial job in Philadelphia to another as a professor of journalism at Boston University. His response to all of this will resonate with many readers: in the face of these upheavals, build a cabin.
Ureneck tells the tale of a little more than a year, during which he finds the land he is looking for, plans the design and building of the simple cabin (An “L”, slightly more than a box) with his brother, Paul, then struggles through the construction itself. There are many strands to wind together along the way, including the marital difficulties Paul himself is having, the trials of Paul’s sons, local politics and grudges, the story of their troubled stepfather, and the last days of their mother, and the exploration of Ureneck’s desire for the cabin and what it means to him: “There was this thought that just appeared from I don’t know where: the cabin would be a home of last resort. It would root me in a place. It would be my hedge against that old and irrational fear, homelessness.”
While the narrative is mostly chronological, Ureneck takes advantage of the memoir’s flexible form to dip into his past, both distant and recent, which gives the story a rich texture. Ureneck is also a sensitive narrator, somewhat wounded by life in this narrative, and this sensitivity is a strength of the book. A book about building a cabin that didn’t have Ureneck’s attention to implications, landscape, desires, and family would be a simple read indeed.
There is drama, too: problems with the building site, as it is unusually prone to rain and flooding; problems with the excavation; problems with the lumber that has been stored for years and isn’t all sound; problems with building a cabin while holding down a job in another state; problems with navigating his helpers’ schedules, needs, and abilities.
There are a few moments in the book that aren’t quite as successful. One instance is a long discussion of the treatment of the native tribes by the earliest European settlers of the area where Ureneck is building his cabin; all true enough, and appalling, but familiar material, which isn’t contributing much to the central story. Another is that while Paul’s character is outlined neatly, and with great affection, the narrator drops that thread: The problems that Paul is having, and the struggles of Paul’s sons, disappear from the narrative, leaving the reader — who has come to care about them — troubled by their absence.
Since the book sets out to tell the story of the cabin, it is no surprise that the peripheral stories come and go. Ureneck’s commitment has been to his vision of the cabin, and in constructing it and this book, he has wielded his tools well. The concluding chapter, when his and Paul’s family have gathered in the cabin for their first Thanksgiving in the new construct, is likely to provoke envy: both for the cabin, and for the dedication Ureneck has to family connections, which, as much as the cabin itself, he has worked hard to build.
- By: Michael Burke