THE BARRENS

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Experienced canoeists Kurt Johnson and Ellie Johnson, a father-daughter writing team, present a vibrant, tender novel of love, loss, stamina, and self-discovery. It’s 2019, and friends and lovers Lee Harvey and Holly Stone met at Brown University six months ago. Holly has paddled the Thelon once before, and she’s anxious to reexperience the beauty, excitement, and tranquility of the vast preserve in Canada’s north country. Less than two weeks out, after the pair transport their heavy packs to the top of a canyon, they stop to take photos, and Holly falls off the cliff into the river’s swirling waters. Lee scrambles down the trail and along the riverbank, keeping her eyes on Holly as the rapids spit her out just past the eddy. Racing into the frigid water, Lee grabs hold of Holly’s life jacket and pulls the unresponsive woman to shore. She finally gets Holly to cough and begin taking a few shallow breaths, but Holly remains unconscious. It’s a grabber of an opening, and the authors effectively leave readers hanging during the next 10 chapters as Lee, the narrator, begins to fill in the backstory that brought the women to this point. Holly is effectively shown to be a woman who wants “her life to read like a collection of unique stories, one adventure after another,” but it’s Lee who spins out the episodic tales of her own troubled childhood, a narrative device that builds Lee into a fully fleshed-out character. The character development continues as Lee endures grueling challenges in the Barrens’ magical but forbidding wilderness. The work also draws on the authors’ expertise, offering a wealth of detailed information about the techniques, equipment, and minute-to-minute decision-making involved in a canoeing adventure, which will appeal to aspiring paddlers.

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