FORT KENT — It would be easy to call Jason Barron’s novel a coming-of-age story. But the musher’s first novel, “Ballad of the Northland,” goes way beyond that, especially when you consider much of it mirrors his own life growing up in the Alaskan wilderness.
“Very little of this story is not true,” Barron said during a recent interview from his home in Montana. “Much of it happened to my older brother [but] I really didn’t write about anything I had no personal experience with.”
Much of the book revolves around the main character and his relationship with his sled dogs in the Alaskan bush.
Barron is no stranger to mushing or to fans of the sport. In 2009 he ran Fort Kent’s Can-Am Crown 250 International Sled Dog Race, placing second in that grueling competition.
He also has raced the famed Iditarod in Alaska — where he was named Rookie of the Year in 1993 at age 21, twice won Montana’s Race to the Sky and ran the John Beargrease Marathon in Minnesota.
All those experiences come through in “Ballad of the Northland.”
The novel follows a young boy growing up in extreme poverty on the Yentna River in south-central Alaska.
The Boy — none of Barron’s human characters is given a proper name — lives with Uncle, Auntie and two cousins, where they often are hungry, cold and worked harder than most adults.
From an early age The Boy learns to trap, hunt and run sled dogs to help the family sustain their impoverished existence.
“The whole story is very much a grim, dark story,” Barron said. “I know that comes through a lot.”
Barron said The Boy is modeled more after older brother Laird, who had what he terms “a hideous” relationship with their parents.
Winters come early and hard in Alaska, and The Boy, along with Middle Cousin and Little Cousin, shoulder as much responsibility as the adults for day-to-day survival.
With clothing barely adequate to keep them warm, The Boy and Middle Cousin must keep a steady supply of firewood ready and run buckets of water from an open ice hole in the river to the family’s drafty cabin.
In the little leisure time allowed, all three cousins play a version of football on the dry or frozen swamp using a discarded plastic syrup bottle filled with rocks for a ball.
“It was kind of like growing up in a third-world country,” Barron recalls of his own childhood. “I don’t want my own kids growing up that way.”
Eventually, The Boy is entrusted with his own trapline and, after Uncle is injured on the trail, is sent out for extended periods to check the family’s lines.
It is during those expeditions he develops his skills with sled dogs and mushing.
Though he is given the second-rate string of dogs to run, The Boy consistently gets better results from his team than Uncle does from the prime dogs.
So much so, that when the time comes for Uncle to take the dogs and attempt a run at the Iditarod, it is The Boy’s dogs that save him on the trail.
Barron’s description of The Boy’s pride in his dogs as he listens to radio broadcasts of the race is a wonderful set up for the heartbreak when he learns that, immediately following the race, Uncle sold those dogs to a fellow musher.
By the time he’s 16, The Boy strikes off on his own with a team of sled dogs, driving his old truck as far as he can into the Alaskan bush, stopping only when the truck becomes bogged down in mud.
There, he builds a rough shelter and prepares to live and train his dogs in preparation for The Great Race. In time, his training regime catches the attention of older, experienced mushers and, eventually, that of Uncle, who brings Middle Cousin to train alongside him.
What follows from that point are harrowing accounts of near-starvation, disaster along the trails and one boy’s determination to best the Alaskan wilderness at her own game.
In one particular case The Boy and Middle Cousin are attacked by a moose while running dogs — something Barron has experienced firsthand.
“It was back when I was 14 or 15, and when the moose attacked I was able to dive behind a tree,” he said. “I had that .41 Magnum [handgun] and shot that moose three times because we only had three bullets.”
Throughout the book the reader often feels right there with The Boy, whether it’s running dogs in blizzard conditions, hunkering down in a meager shelter to wait out a storm or standing an agonizing vigil with a beloved and mortally injured lead dog.
Overall, Barron said he is happy with how the novel turned out but, like most writers, did say there are things he would change.
“I write like I run dogs,” he said. “I put the bulldozer down and work around the clock.”
Barron admits he had no idea what he was getting into when he decided last April he would write a novel, but he did have some definite notions of how it would look.
“I knew the northland itself was the real character and the real story,” he said. “In many ways The Boy and all the other characters were the lenses that allow you to see some of it, [and] The Boy himself is the story’s vehicle that allows the reader to go from Point A to Point B.”
Even though the human characters are more archetypes than individuals, all the dogs in the story are named, which, Barron said, is no accident and, again, reflects his own life — a composite of the characters he has met and his sled dogs.
“I grew up in a shack — I mean, we’re talking cue the banjos,” he said. “We went into the bush when I was 6 and came out when I was 15, and we moved to Petersburg [Alaska], but it was not until I was 18 that I actually began joining civilization.”
Today Barron lives with his wife, Harmony, — a fellow musher whom he met while racing dogs — and their daughter in the Rocky Mountains of Montana.
While their home is in the wilderness, it is nowhere near as rough as his own childhood.
“Where I grew up we were in the middle of nowhere and accidents like a broken leg were big issues where you could get gangrene and die before you had a chance to get help,” Barron said. “Now we live were it is still kind of remote but we can jump in our Subaru Outback and drive a couple of hours for help if we need it.”
“Ballad of the Northland” includes numerous pen-and-ink drawings by Harmony Barron, who also did the artwork for a recently released audiobook of the novel.