From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize-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, Ren 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. Ren 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.
NOMINATING LIBRARY COMMENTS
An ecological family epic played out over two centuries in North America. The book tracks the decimation of the continent’s forests and the concurrent decimation of the cultures and wisdom of indigenous peoples.
In the late 17th century two Frenchmen work as woodcutters – barkskins – in the forests of what later was to become Canada and the northern states of the USA. The families of these two, the Sels and the Douquets, are being followed for over 300 years. A saga of men and nature from seemmingly inexhaustible forest to today’s impact of ecological problems. A mélange of individual fates and their challenges of the surroundings as well as life’s ordeals as it builds the history of a country.
A compulsive read, full of sentences so well-crafted you have to stop and pause and read them again. The research and scholarship is truly amazing. Proulx’s description of a cabbage tree is perfection, and this alone is worth reading the book.
In 1693 two indentured servants arrive in what is now eastern Canada to become woodcutters – barkskins. Rene Sel remains and is forced to marry a native woman while Charles Duque runs away to trade furs and set up a timber business. From these two family lines we experience over 300 years of North American destruction of its people, culture and land. Folklore had taught us to be afraid while in the forest, but this novel tells us that it is the forest that should have been afraid of man. Annie Proulx runs through her story killing off characters while the forests are run through for timber. She reveals the ruthless nature of how we became the nation we are today, and I liked her novel for doing so without any didactic tone.