By Kurt Johnson and Ellie Johnson
My rating: 2 stars
Goodreads Rating: 4.10
Genre: Contemporary Fiction / Adventure / Survival
Format Read: Ebook
Goodreads summary: This riveting debut is at once a white-water adventure, coming-of-age novel, and tale of tragic love—and an extraordinary father-daughter collaboration.
Two young women attending college decide to have a summer adventure canoeing the rapids-strewn Thelon River that runs 450 miles through the uninhabited Barren Lands of subarctic Canada. Holly made the trip once before with a group of skilled paddlers she trained with at camp, and she wants to share that experience with her friend and lover, Lee, believing it will draw them closer. But a week in, Holly, the risk-taker, falls while taking a selfie near the edge of a cliff. She is left injured and comatose, and soon dies. Their locator beacon for summoning rescue was smashed in Holly’s fall. It remains to Lee, the inexperienced paddler, to continue the grueling and dangerous trip alone, to save herself and return her lover’s body to civilization and Holly’s family.
In their relationship, Holly and Lee had always told each other stories; Holly had called Lee a “storyist.” Storytelling helps Lee endure the rigors of her journey and engage her grief as she explores her relationship with Holly while chronicling her own coming-of-age off the grid in Nebraska with her estranged eco-anarchist, survivalist father who is now serving time in prison.
Content warnings (highlight over below line to read):
Rape, sexual violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, death, coming out in a not great way, homophobia, attempted suicide, depression
I will admit that I feel a little guilty for the harshness of this review. It is borne entirely out of my personal biases that have resulted in me VERY harshly critiquing specific aspects of lesbian (and generally queer) culture that I feel were incorrectly portrayed. It turned me off from the Lee, and since the entire story took place in her head (not in an It’s-All-Made-Up way, but in an There’s Only One Character way) that made it incredibly hard for me to enjoy the novel. If you are not a queer woman, perhaps you will enjoy this book much more than I did.
The Barrens is about a college student named Lee who gets invited to take a trip to the arctic to go paddling on the Barrens with a girl she’s been casually dating for two months, Holly. Holly has been on this trip before and wants to go again, but nobody will go with her so she ends up inviting Lee. They’re on the tundra for about 2 days before their relationship (in Lee’s head) goes from “casually dating” to “maybe in love”. I would honestly say this is the most realistic part of the novel. Unrealistic parts are that they haven’t done any prep for this 40 day trip alone in the arctic. Even their canoe buying is done at the last minute. Oh, and also, Holly falls off a cliff, goes into a coma, and is carried around by Lee for a few days before dying. I don’t think that’s really a spoiler since it was what the whole book is about but if it was… sorry!
Before we get to the death of femme lesbian Holly, let’s talk about the single scene that cast me off from this book entirely. Granted it was a long scene that kept popping back up in the strangest of ways, but still. Holly reveals that she’s not out to her parents, and Lee is completely and totally shocked by that. Holly says that she feels like a coward who is hiding herself, and Lee is basically like “yeah, you are a coward” and the book just… lets that sit there. Keep in mind Holly is a STUDENT who relies on her parents for her financial freedom and also knows that her parents will be unsupportive. It could actually be unsafe for her to come out in this situation, and especially in past situations while she was in high school, and I think literally all queer people would understand that.
A similarly strange situation with cowardice happens when Lee discusses being so depressed that she wanted to die in high school, but I will admit by that point I was mostly skimming so I won’t get into that too deeply. Back to the coming out. Holly’s parents eventually appear to get her body, and Lee OUTS HOLLY TO HER PARENTS. Holly, who did not want to come out. Holly who wasn’t ready to disappoint her parents. Holly who told Lee all of this, AND IS NOW DEAD. That just doesn’t sit right with me.
The better parts of this book involve the relationship between Lee and her father, Jake. Jake is a live-off-the-grid fuck-the-system type of guy who raised Lee as a single parent. I genuinely think this book would have been better served if it had been a story about Lee growing up with Jake and we skipped the Barrens part entirely. Instead, we just existed in the Barrens and heard about Lee’s childhood through multiple-page long pieces of dialogue where Lee spoke out loud to Dead Holly about her childhood. Those parts were honestly really good though. I enjoyed.
Other reasons not to read this book are that there’s not a single non-abusive lesbian sexual interaction described. I’m pretty sure at one point we just got that Lee and Holly hadn’t had sex in weeks, but I don’t think we saw them have sex. We did however see Lee get raped by women multiple times, and to have her get sexually assaulted by a man in her teens who she immediately decides to be best friends with, because sure it was sexual assault but she probably would have liked it if she wasn’t a lesbian!
I was really excited about reading this book because I’ve been trying to increase the number of LGBTQ+ books that I read that aren’t strictly about coming out, but I should have known that picking an ARC by a straight white man was not the right move! I thought that it was a dual written book by Kurt and his daughter Ellie, because that’s how it’s marketed, but at the end of the book it says that Kurt wrote it and Ellie just advised as the stand in advising lesbian and Barrens traveler. Future advice to Kurt- don’t let your only sensitivity reader be your daughter! And advice to Ellie- don’t put your name on something you didn’t write!
Huge thank you to Netgalley for providing me with an eARC of this book in exchange for a (very) honest review!