"The Barrens," by Kurt Johnson and Ellie Johnson; Arcade
The otherworldly landscape of Canada's far north holds a pull for many adventurers — a vast terrain where wildlife outnumbers humans and where isolation and blackflies can drive people mad.
Minnesota father and daughter duo Kurt Johnson and Ellie Johnson are the latest writers to set a novel against this unforgiving backdrop. College students Lee and Holly have only known each other a few months when they set off on a 450-mile canoe trip down the remote Thelon River. Their adventure immediately goes awry when Holly has an accident that leaves her comatose.
This raises the stakes for Lee's survival, but the presence of a comatose character has a deflating effect on the narrative. We learn about the pair's fledgling relationship as back story, even as their future grows dim.
The novel's most memorable moments come when Lee slows to the pace of her subarctic surroundings. Close encounters with migrating caribou, and a haunting, hallucinatory encounter with a white wolf lend magic to this survival tale.