When you read The Barrens, you need to keep reminding yourself that this is a work of fiction and not a true story. The writing is so good and the story so well told (and well-paced) that it all seems so real, mostly due to the fact that it is plausible. Two young women on a remote canoe trip turned tragic when the more experienced of the two accidentally falls off a cliff and into a raging river below. The remaining one is determined to get her body back to her family but it will be weeks before she will find civilization.
That is the ‘death’ portion of the subtitle. The ‘love’ part is the relationship between the two girls who meet in college, become friends and eventually lovers. But they are worlds apart. Holly comes from an upper-class background while Lee comes from a subsistence way of life as her father is an eco-anarchist, preferring to live off the grid in Nebraska while raising Lee to be able to fend for herself at an early age.
We learn about Lee’s background in a series of stories that she begins to tell Holly at the start of their two-week canoe trip on the Thelon River in the Northwest Territories. After Holly’s accident, and while she is in a comatose state, Lee continues telling her stories:
Could she hear me? Was she just stuck inside her mind, as if trapped beneath a layer of ice, a frozen pane keeping her from the surface? Was she trying to call to me, reach for me? I needed to believe she was there, that she wanted to hear me speak. I'd planned to keep telling Holly more stories about my past. I told one now about the mother I never knew. Maybe she'd respond to the sound of my words.
I started, my voice echoing in the tent, loud enough, I hoped, to penetrate deep into her brain and subconscious, rattling the bars of her caged mind.
Telling Holly stories, even after she has died, is a way for Lee to keep herself sane and to pass the time. After losing one of the food packs to a grizzly bear, Lee is reduced to eating whatever remained in the other food pack, which was mostly dried, powdered products. She sheds weight as she has to lug what remains of their supplies, the canoe and of course, Holly (then later her corpse zipped up in a sleeping bag).
Afterward, I hiked up the gradual slope of the riverbank to the highest point. I could see for miles and there was no sign of other humans. There was no one on this f***ing river but us.
Armchair adventurers and outdoors people alike will enjoy the immersive reading experience that this novel offers, based on the experiences of the co-author’s own 450-mile trek on the Thelon River at the age of seventeen. The Barrens is a Miramichi Reader “Pick” for an exceptional book that was authored and published outside of Canada.
Kurt Johnson grew up spending summers on a remote island near the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, first with his parents and later with his wife, Stephanie, and then their daughter, Ellie. He lives in Minneapolis.
Ellie Johnson paddled the 450-mile Thelon River with three other women at the age of seventeen. The novel is based in part on that canoe trip as well as her real-life experiences growing up as a gay woman. Ellie is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota and lives in St. Paul.
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