I recently finished reading Lost in the Barrens by Farley Mowat. Published in 1956, this story is both adventurous and exciting. Set in the north of Canada, it tells the tale of two young boys stranded in the wilderness.
Editor’s note: To accurately describe the content of Lost in the Barrens, this review references terms for Aboriginal Peoples used in the book that were in common use at the time of the book’s publication.
Awasin, an Indian Chipewyan, has lived in the north all his life. Jamie, on the other hand, grew up in Toronto and attended an expensive, private boarding school. He was sent to the school after the death of his parents when he was nine years old. But Jamie’s uncle and only living relative, Angus McNair, does not have enough money to continue sending his nephew to the school, so he arranges to have Jamie brought to the north to live with him. When Jamie arrives at Angus McNair’s dwelling in the woods, he and Awasin become good friends.
Jamie is enjoying his life in the north. But winter is coming, and an Indian camp even farther north is running out of food. This camp, led by a man named Denikazi, normally has plenty of caribou meat to last the winter. But this year, the caribou are late in coming, and the camp is starving. In a desperate effort, Denikazi and a group of hunters go searching for the animals, hoping to find enough meat to feed their camp for the rest of the year. When Denikazi and his hunters arrive at the Chipewyan beach in their canoes, looking for supplies and help, Jamie and Awasin eagerly volunteer.
Everything was going well on the hunting trip, until Denikazi and a small group of hunters decided to leave the boys behind, heading northward at a faster pace in order to hunt. But the boys get bored and want some adventure. Leaving the camp by canoe, they paddle miles downstream. After a day’s excursion, Jamie and Awasin find a rapid that they can’t traverse. It wrecks the canoe, and the boys are left stranded on the endless tundra.
This book is very exciting, and there are many times when it is suspenseful. It is also interesting to see how resourceful the boys are in their quest for survival. They build an igloo of stones, spend days making clothes of deer skin, and collect lots of fuel for fires. When winter arrives, they can be seen as courageous and inventive. After finding a small hidden valley, they construct another cabin, this time out of logs. Jamie and Awasin show incredible skill while they prove that surviving in the frozen north is not hopeless.
One of my favourite things about this book is that Jamie and Awasin’s beliefs are challenged. The Indians were traditionally terrified of the Eskimos (now called the Inuit), thinking that they were cannibals and inhospitable. The two boys were in constant fear of these men of the north. During the long, cold winter months, a short change in the weather convinces Jamie and Awasin that it is time to attempt a break for the south where they will be safe, but they travel less than forty miles when a storm rolls in. The two boys, just minutes away from death, are lucky to find an Eskimo’s igloo. After days spent recuperating, they become friends with a young Eskimo. Jamie and Awasin realize that the Eskimos are, contrary to their previous beliefs, warm and welcoming people.
One thing that I dislike about the story is that time passes so quickly. There are multiple instances when, in just one paragraph, many days pass. This makes parts of the story seem like you are just reading about the passage of time.
Farley Mowat has managed to create an extreme survival story in unbearable conditions – the endless Canadian north. Lost in the Barrens also has an amazing blend of diverse cultures and near death experiences. Overall, the book has a very strong sense of danger. At every turn, the boys are trying to solve the problem of what could kill them next – the cold, the wild animals, food shortages, or living conditions. The book is suspenseful and exciting; in every chapter, Jamie and Awasin are put to the test to survive in the barren north.
In conclusion, the read deserves 4.5 out of 5 stars.
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