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Review of
Lou Ureneck’s Backcast

St. Martin Press/2007

By Debbie Hagan

If you’re traveling downstream in Alaska, living off the salmon, camping along the shore, you’re bound to be thinking: bears. You know they’re there, in the river, fishing beside you; after all, they’re hungry too.

When Lou Ureneck began his ten-day raft trip down the Kanektok River with his eighteen-year-old son, he thought: bears. He packed a shotgun, just to be sure. However, nothing could protect him from his son, bitter over his parents’ divorce.

When a bear attacks, he kills you, and it’s over. Death by a teenager is more complicated. He gnaws at your self-image, your ego. He goes after the way you dress, the way you smell, even the way you part your hair. He reminds you that you’re old, you’re cheap, you’re unsophisticated, you’re even ill-prepared. Reminder Dad, you should have packed more food. Then he goes after the heart, reminding you how this argument began. You should have been a better husband, a better father, instead of a twenty-year-quitter.

I read this book during my own journey with my sixteen-year-old son. We drove across upstate New York. Its sparsely-populated rolling hills and deep valleys stirred a deep melancholy within me. Then I looked over at my son, slumped into the passenger door, his noise-canceling headphones on, his nose pressed against the window, and I knew the source of my discontent. We had argued once again.

Challenges accompany every great journey. My son and I beat-back driving rain and wrestled a flat tire. Ureneck fought off bears and a near-heart attack. Overcoming physical tests is one thing; healing the spirit is quite another. I learned that sometimes there’s only one way to mend this kind of pain. It’s to focus downstream and simply move on.

Debbie Hagan teaches writing at New Hampshire Institute of Art and at Grub Street in Boston. She is book review editor for Brevity.