Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Longlisted for the baileys women’s prize for fiction 2017

A New York times book of the year

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, 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.

Barkskins is a riveting read. I had assumed it would be just another historical novel following a few disparate characters but it turned out to be much more. Initially the reader is interested in the characters while the trees and forests are merely something of a backdrop, but as time passes in this wide-ranging novel it becomes obvious that these natural resources are not as limitless as the timber merchants think and we are led on an inexorable path towards ecological disaster. Have the Duke family realised in time that we need to do something to save our planet or is it all too late? The history of the development of the timber trade – the types of trees taken, the methods of cutting and working, the uses of the wood – is cleverly entwined in the story of these two families so that the reader absorbs a great deal of knowledge through osmosis, never feeling lectured to or bogged down with irrelevant information. The amount of research that Ms Proulx has conducted into the timber trade around the world – from North America to New Zealand – is impressive, as is the link to European trade, the whole coming together as an indictment on the dangers of colonialism.

Barkskins is cleverly written as a saga which follows the lives of two families arriving in North America at the same time and in the same condition but then following very different paths. The rich Duke family introduce the reader to the development of business and trade on the new continent while the Sel family show the awful impact that this immigration brought to the lives of the First Nation peoples of the United States, Canada and New Zealand. From the decimation of tribes by European diseases to the discrimination meted out to whole peoples considered to be ‘inferior’ simply because their culture and civilisation were not understood, to the scandal of the Canadian Residential Schools this is a novel which immerses the reader in a conflict of cultures which is still ongoing. Perhaps Ms Proulx in her last few chapters has presented us with a vison of hope in which there may be reconciliation as the First Nations people whose lives were once so closely entwined with the forest may now be the ones with the knowledge and skills to help us save our world from ourselves.

Barkskins is a long novel which might put some people off, but I urge you to read it. The plotting is a tightly-knit web, the characters well rounded – some engaging and loveable, others quite unpleasant, – the descriptions of the forests atmospheric, the prose as a whole beautifully written and engaging. If you are looking for something to keep you occupied on cold winter evenings then curl up with this book and lose yourself in a past world which has such relevance and meaning for our own.

Barkskins can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Annie Proulx here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

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