Monday, November 5, 2012

Review: Cabin by Lou Ureneck

Cabin: Two Brothers, A Dream, and Five Acres in Maine by Lou Ureneck is part story and part encyclopedia.  It's a compilation of everything related to the location and construction of a cabin in Maine, though it's by no means a how-to manual.  Half of it is about the human relationships of the builders — which is my sweet spot.  The other half, intertwined with the story, is about the ecology, history, and social structure of the area, sometimes in exhaustive detail.  If the subject of a particular page doesn’t interest you, just skip ahead a few paragraphs or pages and read about something else.  Like:
By the 1830s, Stoneham (Maine) was … a source of staves for the manufacture of wood barrels.  Stoneham’s staves, the beveled pieces of wood that formed the sides of the barrels, traveled by wagon to Portland and then by schooner to Cuba and the West Indies, where they were assembled into barrels and filled with molasses and rum.  The staves were temporarily assembled into barrels in Stoneham to assure their eventual watertightness, and then broken down and packaged into shooks that took up less space in shipping — in the local vernacular, the staves were “all shook up.”

Did Elvis Presley know that when he recorded the song?  Well, now you and I know it.

I must have skipped a third of the text, but the parts that engaged me were wonderful.  He's a descriptive writer.  I could feel the snow coming down.  I could see the beaver in the pond.

I loved the author's boyhood trapping of muskrats in New Jersey (and what does this have to do with building a cabin in Maine?  Not much.)  I loved the Civil War history detailing what happened to the local Maine boys who went away to fight.  I loved meeting the locals who helped with the construction — a carpenter, a dowser, an excavator — and I loved meeting a crusty local lumberman who greeted the author with a long skeptical stare and then asked, "Are you a liberal?" as if he were asking, "Are you a cockroach?"

It's about men: the author, his brother Paul, their sons, their father.  Both the author and his brother go through divorces.  Though he examines every other tangential aspect of the cabin-building, we learn almost nothing about the break-ups except how they affected the work.  The very lack of women in the author's narrative — and I suppose, the author's mind — might indicate why the divorces took place.  Or might not.  I have to respect the author's discretion, though it creates a notable hole in the story.

Here's a construction detail I learned, while it twisted my stomach in a knot:
Paul smacked his thumbnail hard with the hammer.  It immediately turned purple and throbbed as the blood from the bruise pushed up the nail.  He applied pressure on it to slow the pooling of the blood, but the pain was bad enough to make working difficult…  So I proposed a solution I had learned on a construction job and had once used on myself: Piercing the thumbnail to relieve the pressure…  I sterilized a tiny drill bit with the flame of a butane lighter and went to work in my operating room — the front seat of his truck.  Slowly and carefully, I turned a tiny drill bit, about an eighth of an inch in diameter, back and forth with my thumb and forefinger over Paul's thumbnail to make a hole.  'You're going to know it when I touch the flesh,' I told him.  'That's okay,' he said.  'It can't be any worse than what I'm feeling right now.'  The bit came through and the pressurized blood shot over the dashboard and onto the windshield.  He wrapped his thumb with a handkerchief and tied it tight.

I hope I never have to use this technique, but it's good to know.

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