Barkskins by Annie Proulx*: From Annie Proulx—the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain,” comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests.
In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.
Proulx’s inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid—in their greed, lust, vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope—that we follow them with fierce attention. Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable and compelling American writers, and Barkskins is her greatest novel, a magnificent marriage of history and imagination.
My two cents
An ambitious novel spanning over 300 years, Barkskins presents the history of logging and the deterioration of the world's forests -- from widespread unapologetic clearcutting to today's alarm over global warming -- through the family histories of two men.
Barkskins were servants brought in to clear vast tracts of land in New France (now Canada) during the late 17th century. The politicized history of the world's forests is told through the family histories of barkskins, René Sel and Charles Duquet.
Sel took on the backbreaking work. Despite his loyalty, he is forced to marry an older Mi'kmaq, Mari, the mistress of his signeur. Over generations, the Sel's lives tell of great hardship and toil, exacerbated by the fact that Native Americans bore the brunt in a white man's world. There is a continuous battle to hold on to their lifeways but were marginalized and moreso impoverished in the process.
Duquet, ambitious yet unused to hard work, runs away. Duquet makes a fortune, mostly on furs and lumber, but mainly through unscrupulous means. He marries the daughter of his rich Dutch business partner. Anglicizing the family name to Duke, he builds the Duke and Sons timber empire who wreaks havoc on the untouched forests in other countries over the next century.
Let's not overlook the fact that this is a chunkster (700+ pages). Prepare yourself for the experience. And don't dare rush this one if you're keen on getting something from this, because Proulx has a lot to offer.
The heart of this book is humanity's ever-conflicted relationship with nature. There are two contrasting views about resource utilization: the "to hell with it" extract as much as possible, profit to the hilt and move on, or the more measured (and informed) way where extraction is based on need and allowing the resource regenerate naturally. Today's return to sustainable resource utilization is borne out of the realization that resources are not limitless and is, too, a return to the holistic views of many indigenous cultures.
This is about the politics of forests. I can't help but applaud at Proulx's decision to write this highly politicized and polarizing book. It is seemingly inevitable as white man conquered and colonized and took lands for their own leaving native American tribe of the Mi'kmaq severely marginalized, poor, and socially and culturally unmoored.
Delving into the politics of the extraction of natural resources, only confirms an age old modus operandi -- there will be the moneyed and powerful who will get as much as they can from from the earth and take advantage of people to succeed. Capitalism can be greedy, rapacious, ruthless. At stake are indigenous cultures and their harmonious relationship with nature. But Proulx attempts to bring this story full circle, a conscientization of her readers: what have we done, and what shall we do about it?
This was very well researched, rich in the detail not only of the history and cultures, but more importantly of the science behind the story. Foresters, ecologists, historians, sociologists, I know you will delight in the details! However, the devil is in the details: it's easy to get lost and distracted in them (good or bad, that is totally up to you).
The earlier portion of the book made the characters feel real with horrific descriptions of the mental anguish and physical hardships they had to endure. But character upon character came into the cast and with the varying lengths by which they appear in the story, the sense of time was easily lost on me. Despite having the family tree, it did little to ease how I followed along in the characters' lives.
I can't help but applaud at Proulx's decision to write this highly politicized and polarizing book. Well researched and rich in detail, this was a mixed bag for me in terms of the reading experience. I loved the beginning but Proulx lost me towards the end. However, I still recommend this book and suggest reading in short bursts lest 700+ pages intimidates you!