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Book Review

Longing for connection with family and with nature

By Chuck Leddy
September 21, 2011

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Lou Ureneck has written two terrific memoirs that join his love of nature and family. In 2007’s “Backcast,’’ Ureneck, in the middle of a difficult divorce, brings his alienated, confused teenage son Adam on an Alaskan fishing trip. Ureneck’s memoir serves as more than just a marvelous meditation on an angling adventure - it won the 2007 National Outdoor Book Award - as it quietly expands into a closely observed, lyrical portrait of a father and son struggling to break through anger, fear, and disappointment to find common ground.

Now, in his newest book, “Cabin,’’ Ureneck heads to the Maine woods on a Thoreauvian mission to simplify life and find his truest self by building a lakeside cabin. But unlike Concord’s legendary recluse, Ureneck forges a powerful bond with his brother and his family.

Ureneck, a Boston University journalism professor, is clearly following a great tradition of restless literary folk seeking the transformative power of nature. In the book’s opening pages, we hear not just echoes of Thoreau, but also Melville’s restless Ishmael, longing to return to sea: “I had been city-bound for nearly a decade,’’ Ureneck writes. “I had lost a job, my mother had died, and I was climbing back from a divorce . . . wobbly but still standing.’’

When he decides to build a cabin in the Maine woods, it becomes clear that the structure is not just an abode but a metaphor for Ureneck’s lifelong yearning for rootedness. He deeply explores his own childhood, the pain of moving around from place to place because of his family’s economic troubles, how his biological father, and then his stepfather, abandoned the family, leaving Ureneck and his brother Paul devastated.

I don’t wish to imply that reading “Cabin’’ is like watching a rerun of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.’’ Ureneck and his brother share a palpable and delightfully old-fashioned respect for each other’s privacy. When Ureneck suspects that Paul is having problems in his marriage, he never probes beyond what Paul is willing to discuss, and Paul reciprocates. Instead, the brothers find deep communion in the hard, physical work of constructing the cabin.

Ureneck has an immensely observant eye for the richness of nature. He loves nothing more than walking around his cabin, feeling part of the landscape: “The winter woods are nearly always silent. There may be . . . the isolated chatter of chickadees as they search among the softwood for seeds, but usually the only sound is the rasp of one’s own breathing.’’ Ureneck needs such absorption to be happy, and it largely creates his worldview: a love of simplicity, a need to be rooted in nature, and a longing for connection.

Ureneck delights in the company of Paul and his sons. As they hammer nails, they talk about the world, the family, and their future plans. Ureneck even apologizes to Paul for being absent when Paul’s infant son nearly died and Ureneck was going through his divorce. In a moment of candor, he tells Paul, “I should have been there for you then, and I wasn’t. I’m sorry.’’ Paul, sounding like one of Robert Frost’s laconic Yankee farmers, says simply, “Don’t worry about it.’’ This is about as Oprah-esque as it gets, but the emotions are no less profound.

As the cabin nears completion and Ureneck achieves the connection with family and nature that he seeks, he has an epiphany: “We are included in this miracle [of nature]. . . . All of us, it seems to me, seek to recapture the sensation and selves of our childhoods, and nature offers the best way back, to the freshest part of our true and original essence.’’

In “Cabin,’’ Lou Ureneck has created something bracing, beautiful, and profoundly heart-felt.

Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at chuckleddy@comcast.net.

CABIN:

Two Brothers, a Dream, and Five Acres in Maine

By Lou Ureneck

Viking, 243 pp., $25.95