The Barrens is about two young women who take a 450-mile canoe trip on the Thelon River through the uninhabited Arctic tundra of the Barren Lands in northern Canada. Holly has done the trip before. A week into the trip Holly dies while taking a selfie too close to the edge of a cliff. Lee is tasked with canoeing for the next three weeks alone with the body. The two had established a ritual of telling stories about their pasts and imagined futures while camping at night. Lee continues to tell the stories even after Holly dies. Lee’s coming-of-age story is about growing up off-the-grid in Nebraska with her eco-anarchist father who eventually lands in prison. Holly’s coming-out story happens when Lee finally confronts Holly's family after getting off the river.
Author Kurt Johnson wrote this novel with the help of his daughter, Ellie, who did the 450-mile journey. His daughter is also gay. The story is the product of the author working to understand her physical journey through the Barren Lands, and her journey as a gay woman coming of age. The novel is written with his Ellie’s insight and guidance.