As I go through books I want to review, I find myself being more and more drawn to the books I especially enjoyed as a child. You may have already read some of these: Trumpet of the Swan, The Otterbury Incident, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. Now I want to add another one to my list of childhood favourites.
Lost in the Barrens was my first introduction to stories of man versus nature and the struggle to survive in the wilderness. Anyone who’s read Jack London or Daniel Defoe will know what I mean. Farley Mowat, though, more than deserves his place in the hall-of-fame of children’s classics. His works have been translated into over twenty languages and published in forty countries. In Canada, his homeland, Farley Mowat is part of the literature curriculum taught to children, and, in fact, he’s something of a national treasure; Canadians are proud of him and justifiably so. Along with Trivial Pursuit, his books are one of their greatest contributions to the enrichment of humankind.
All boys love to read survival in the wilderness books, it’s usually a very successful concept if it’s pulled off right. TV shows like Lost, and reality shows like I’m A Celebrity… and The Amazing Race prove it. Love them or hate them, there’s no denying their success. Anyways, that aside, Lost in the Barrens plays on this concept wonderfully while also using the ‘amalgam of civilizations’ arch-type in its most simplistic form, boy-meet-boy. Jamie is an orphaned young Scot who grows up with his uncle Angus MacNair, the ranger of the north, and Awasin is the son of the chief of the Cree Indian tribe that lives right across the lake from the MacNair cabin. Naturally, the boys become fast friends, with Awasin teaching Jamie through instruction and example to live the way taken for granted up beyond the Arctic line. Shooting, trapping, rapid-shooting, Jamie takes to them all like he was born to it. The camaraderie between the boys is the cornerstone of the book, and when they’re eventually marooned in the barrens, more than any wilderness skills that keep them alive, it’s that bedrock of friendship that keeps them sane.
There are many wonderful descriptions of life beyond the pale, and enough action and cool wilderness surviving tricks and techniques to keep anyone satisfied. From shooting Grizzly bears with a bow and arrow (yes, they actually do that, read the book to find out why) to building a log cabin, from slaughtering a herd of deer and battling with wolverines. Mowat grew up in what he writes about, and his fierce love for that way of life comes out strongly in his depictive vivification of the balance between a genuine awe for the beauty of nature with the pragmatic ruthlessness necessary to keep yourself alive in such a harsh and unyielding environment. Read more for further details. Or actually start reading. That’s better.
Summarizing very quickly, the boys agree to help a destitute band of starvation-facing Chipewayan Indians by going with them on a caribou hunting trip, as their rifles are far superior to anything the Indians have. Jamie’s foolish if genuine curiosity leads them to exploring the Old Stone House, which was built by a maverick English trapper a decade or so back. This is where they get lost in the barrens. A bad rapid ride destroys their canoe and since the Indians have no way to know where the boys are, not to mention that they are in the heart of Eskimo (which in this case reads as enemy) territory, they don’t want to hang around to find out. The boys make a desperate attempt to reach their old rendezvous point, but are too late. They are then faced with the stark reality of being lost in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. And that’s just during the summer. In winter, nothing moves in the Tundra Arctic wastes.
However, the boys are ingenious and clever. Awasin in particular knows many useful survival tricks; how to make babiche rope, stitch moccasins, and eventually how to build a cabin. Jamie complements Awasin’s know-how with innovative ideas. Teamwork is very important here, they have to work together very hard just to stay alive. Things get better when they have their first successful deer-hunt, which supplies them with many of the things they need to survive, especially hides, the suet fat (essential for winter living), and, in the shape of a small faun they name Otanak (a tongue-in-cheek joke here since Otanak literally means “the one who was left behind”), a companion. The three of them then gear themselves up to survive the deadliest blizzards in the world.
A mixture of good luck, ingenuity, and sheer hard work are the devices Mowat uses to create this tale of brotherly camaraderie. Lost in the Barrens repeatedly identifies this bond as the most important ingredient for their survival. Up in the real north, out near the Yukon and in places that still haven’t been properly mapped yet, you need absolute trust simply to keep yourself alive. Mowat, with straightforward and elegantly descriptive prose, brings it home to us beautifully. Added to this are wonderful description of the geography of the far north, its stark and, to paraphrase W.B. Yeats, terrible beauty. The caribou migrations in particular are described so vividly you can almost smell the hair and musk of the deer as they rush past in their thousands. It used to be millions, but the population has dwindled somewhat, partly due to man and partly due to their own cycles of birth and death. That also brings us to another very important point.
Mowat makes no attempt to cozen us with any sort of green goody-goody environmentalism, which, let’s be honest, could’ve been the most important moral message in the book. Instead, he emphasizes the pragmatic and at time ruthless nature of what it takes to survive. During one major migration, for example, the boys kill 47 deer in a single day. They are then disgusted by the lengths they have to go to for survival, but also realize they had no choice, and set to work to make sure that not even a single bit of the deer is wasted. I won’t desribe that here, it’s this kind of stuff that makes Lost in the Barrens sucha good read, especially for young urban kids to whom the the polar north is more of an ideative abstraction than a real place. Remember that episode of How I Met Your Mother in which Robin thinks the north place is a fairly-tale place? And she’s Canadian! One can only imagine how little the rest of the North American continent is unfamiliar to the people who dwell there. But perhaps I am being unjust. After all, one Farley Mowat, and his rich legacy of writing, is enough to balance any number of ignorant idiots, is it not? Ah, if only ’twere so.
From Bangalore but based primarily in New Delhi, India, Samir has variously been and continues to be a professional musician, a pub quiz host, a political campaign aide, and a student of the guitar, as well as history and international relations. He is currently Research Director for the Global Security Centre in India. He is also a freelance editor and research consultant, having worked for the Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs, the Public Health Foundation of India, and a McKinsey-IBM KPO, as well as Random House and Oxford University Press. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org