Recommended Read – Lionheart by Sharon Penman

lionheartRichard I was crowned King in 1189 and set off almost immediately for the Third Crusade. This was a bloody campaign to regain the Holy Land, marked by warfare among the Christians and extraordinary campaigns against the Saracens. Men and women found themselves facing new sorts of challenges and facing an uncertain future. John, the youngest son, was left behind – and with Richard gone, he was free to conspire with the French king to steal his brother’s throne.

Overshadowing the battlefields that stretched to Jerusalem and beyond were the personalities of two great adversaries: Richard and Saladin. They quickly took the measure of each other in both war and diplomacy. The result was mutual admiration: a profound acknowledgement of a worthy opponent.

In Lionheart, a gripping narrative of passion, intrigue, battle and deceit, Sharon Penman reveals a true and complex Richard – a man remarkable for his power and intelligence, his keen grasp of warfare and his concern for the safety of his men, who followed him against all odds.

Most people have heard of the English king Richard I, known as the Lionheart, but do we really know the truth about the man? As with any medieval character much has been lost with the passage of time, and often much of what remains is distorted or written by those who came after and had an axe to grind. If you come to Lionheart with a background of legends then you will be expecting to read about a man who was a bad king, who put his love of battle and search for glory before the needs of his kingdom, even put that kingdom at risk for his own selfish reasons. Yet after reading this novel by Ms Penman you will most likely come away with a different view; it may be possible that Richard I is as maligned and misunderstood as that other Richard, King Richard III.

Ms Penman, who has conducted extensive research of the chronicles and first-hand accounts of the events of the Third Crusade, reveals a different Richard. Here we see a man driven by a genuine desire to retake the Holy Land for God, who knew the risks to his lands back in Europe but was prepared to accept these for the glory of God. It is true that he was a brave, almost reckless, warrior but he was also a fine tactician and general with a deep grasp of politics and human character which enabled him to bring a well-rounded approach to his plans and often a depth of understanding which his contemporaries did not see.

Surprisingly, Lionheart is not a book full of blood and gore, it takes many pages for the Crusaders to reach the Hoy Land, but it is engrossing in its revelation of the times and key people – revelations based on solid facts supported by both Christian and Saracen sources. It introduces us to a cast of well-rounded and believable characters whose weaknesses as well as strengths are fully exposed. Whilst not being the bad king that he is often portrayed to be Richard was a poor husband and probably a deeply selfish man (but that was not unusual for medieval monarchs who believed that they were the chosen instruments of God). Ms Penman also roots her novels in a realistic world which allows us to almost feel the heat and discomfort experienced by those who had never been out of Europe before, the comforts of court life, the food, the clothing worn, the terrible sea voyages undertaken.

Lionheart a is solid, detailed, character driven historical novel which delves into the political intricacies of the closing years of the twelfth century. It immerses the reader in the Third Crusade and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in history, religion and the enigma which was Richard I. I look forward to reading A King’s Ransom which will bring the story of Richard to its final conclusion.

You can find Lionheart on Amazon

You can find out more about Sharon Penman here

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

 

Cavalry, tanks, and a German propaganda coup

The cavalry charge at Krojanty on the first day of the Second World War is widely described as the last cavalry charge in modern warfare. The story goes that the Poles came across advancing German tanks and bravely charged them, pennants flying, sun shining on their swords and lances; an out of date and backward country taking on the mechanical might of a modern army. In The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich William L Shirer even described the charge as ‘Horses against tanks! The cavalryman’s long lance against the tank’s long canon! Brave and valiant and foolhardy though they were, the Poles were simply overwhelmed by the German onslaught’; it is an evocative image of the Polish upper class, a well-educated fighting elite, sacrificing themselves in the defence of their homeland against Nazi Germany to the west and the Soviet Union to the east. But is it really true?

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The Italian Savoia Cavalleria at Isbuscenskij, August, 24, 1942, one of the last cavalry charges of WW2

Many may be surprised to know that horses, which had always played an important role in warfare, continued to do so during the Second World War. The German Army still had around 500,000 in 1939, and almost 2.7 million in service by the end of the war; in two months during the winter of 1941-2 179,000 horses died of exhaustion and cold on the Eastern Front. The majority of these horses were used for logistical purposes, but cavalry had not disappeared altogether. Some cavalry units still used lances and sabres, but most were now mounted infantry able to get quickly from one place to another where they would dismount to use more modern weapons such as machine guns, anti-tank rifles, and mortars. There were cavalry units attached to a number of armies – the French, British (particularly the Sikh sowars who led the last British sabre charge of the war on the Burma Frontier), Americans, Hungarians, Russians, Rumanians, and Italians, as well as the Germans and Poles.

In 1939 Poland had 11 cavalry brigades which made up 10% of the army and were intended to be used as mobile reserves, and far from Krojanty being the last cavalry charge there were at least 14 such engagements by the Poles during the first month of the war,* most of them successful. So why is the Krojanty charge so famous and so misrepresented?

Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Polish Uhlan with anti-tank rifle 1938
Eugeniusz_Swiesciak
Eugeniusz Swiesciak

The action, which was part of the wider Battle of Tuchola Forest, took place near the village of Krojanty on the evening of 1st September 1939. A group of German infantry were resting in the forest and Colonel Kazimierz Mastalerz (who had fought in the cavalry during the First World War and knew from experience that the element of surprise would be vital in any attack) ordered Commander Eugeniusz Świeściak of the Pomeranian Uhlans to initiate a charge in one of the very first engagements of the Second World War. The Germans were unprepared and taken completely by surprise, quickly retreating before the Polish cavalry. But the attacker’s upper-hand was short lived as German armoured reconnaissance vehicles deployed from the forest road and opened fire; as the horsemen retreated Świeściak and a third of his 250 men were killed, Colonel Mastalerz was killed trying to save them. The charge had been successful though in that it slowed the German advance and allowed other units of the Polish army to make an orderly retreat in front of the advancing Germans.

Hitler youth magazine
Hitler Youth magazine perpetuating the story

The following day a number of German and Italian reporters visited the battlefield where tanks had now arrived and were deployed near the dead Polish cavalrymen and their mounts. An Italian Journalist named Indro Montanelli jumped to conclusions and sent a report saying that the Poles had been cut down whilst attacking the German tanks. It would have been easy enough for the Germans to deny this, but they quickly saw the propaganda value of the story and ran an article in Die Wehrmacht, a propaganda magazine in Germany, implying that the charge demonstrated how strong and sophisticated the new German army was and how weak and ill-prepared were her enemies. At the end of the war the story was reinforced by the Soviets to show how the poor Polish peasants had been failed by a decadent aristocratic class. As Germany and Italy had the only reporters to visit the site this propaganda myth continued to be perpetuated even up to the 1990’s.

There seems to have been only one instance of the Polish cavalry charging German tanks, and this happened entirely by accident at Mokra. In the middle of the confusion and smoke of battle Captain Hollak suddenly found himself and his unit riding directly at the flank of a German column, with little choice and before the enemy had time to react he led his men at the gallop through the German tanks and seized the high ground. Two days later Mokra was lost to the advancing Germans.

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The monument to the Wołyńska Cavalry Brigade at Mokra

There were a number of other small cavalry charges in different theatres of the war during World War 2 whilst Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) and Mozambique used cavalry into the 1970’s; the Americans used horses in Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, and the 61st Cavalry unit is still a part of the Indian Army today.** So the importance of the horse during warfare continues, and the Charge of Krojanty rather than showing a last brave cavalry charge as the past gave way to modern warfare should probably be seen more as an enduring testimony to the power of propaganda.

**(I believe this is the only non-ceremonial cavalry unit in a modern army but would be interested if anyone can tell me otherwise).

*Polish cavalry charges during the first month of the Second World War:

  • 1st September 1939 – the battle of Krojanty
  • 1st September 1939 – against a small group of the 4th Panzer Division in Mokra
  • 1st September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Janów
  • 2nd September 1939 – Polish and German cavalry met at Borowa Góra
  • 11th September 1939 – Polish cavalry attacked German infantry at Osuchowo
  • 11th – 12th September 1939 – Polish cavalry recaptured the village of Kaluszyn
  • 13th September 1939 – Polish cavalry were repelled at Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 13th September 1939 – A second charge retook Mińsk Mazwiecki
  • 15th September 1939 – A polish charge at Brochów
  • 19th September 1939 – Polish cavalry cleared the way for the army to retreat from Wólka Weglowa
  • 21st September 1939 – A Polish charge halted a German assault at Łomianki
  • 23rd September 1939 – Polish cavalry retook Krasnobród (German cavalry was also involved)
  • 24th September 1939 – A Polish cavalry charge initially halted a soviet advance at Husynne before being stopped by tanks
  • 26th September 1939 – 2 Polish charges forced the Germans to withdraw from Morańce

The Words In My Hand by Guinevere Glasfurd

The Words In My HandThe Words in My Hand is the reimagined true story of Helena Jans, a Dutch maid in 17th century Amsterdam working for an English bookseller. One day a mysterious and reclusive lodger arrives – the Monsieur – who turns out to be René Descartes.

At first encounter the maid and the philosopher seem to have little in common, yet Helena yearns for knowledge and literacy – wanting to write so badly that she uses beetroot for ink and her body as paper.

And the philosopher, for all his learning, finds that it is Helena who reveals the surprise in the everyday world that surrounds him, as gradually their relationship deepens in a surprising story of love and learning.

We know the writings of the philosopher Réne Descartes but not so much about his private life. Historians often describe him as ‘a loner’, but was this really the case? We know that he had a daughter, Francine, with Helena Jans who was a maid in the house Descartes lodged in in Amsterdam in 1634. We know that they corresponded (although their letters do not survive), and we know that they continued to live close to each other for many years after the death of their daughter. The implication is that their relationship must have been both complex and important. Ms Glasfurd has taken this scant information to create a novel which is both beautiful and compelling.

‘The Words In My Hand’ is an atmospheric novel which brings 17th century Holland to life with all its sights and sounds, its varied people with their thoughts and prejudices, and the conflict created by new thoughts and ideas which opposed both tradition and the Church. Within this totally believable world we find a realistic and unsentimental story of love between two very different people who struggle to overcome the divide between them. The author seems to have delved into the depths of a woman struggling against the challenges which faced her gender and social class yet never bowing totally beneath them. The writing is descriptive, fresh, and cleverly constructed, the novel gentle paced in which great characters are described with subtlety and understanding.

As you read ‘The Words In My Hand’ you become immersed in Helena’s world and it can be difficult to remember that this is fiction, a tale of love and a search for knowledge which is totally of its time yet could be any time at all.

Readers who enjoy character driven novels which stretch their imagination and understanding are sure to enjoy this superb debut novel by Guinevere Glasfurd.

The Words In My Hand can be found on Amazon

You can find out more about Guinevere Glasfurd here

You can find more of my Recommended reads here

 

How RADAR helped to win the war

It is always an advantage in battle to know what the enemy is up to. In the past the military relied on observers and spies to supply this information, but during the twentieth century technology began to play a more important role allowing the Allies to identify enemy planes, ships and submarines from a greater distance through the use of radar (Radio Detection and Ranging). Planes were first used in war for reconnaissance (1914-18) but as they became bigger and faster it became clear that planes were the weapons of the future and the threat of bombing of civilian centres grew, in 1932 Stanley Baldwin (the British Prime Minister) said that ‘the bomber will always get through’. To try to combat this scientists and technicians turned to radar.

christian-hc3bclsmeyerjpg.jpg
Christian Hülsmeyer

It was in the 19th century that Michael Faraday and James Maxwell predicted that radio waves existed. In 1886 Heinrich Hertz conducted experiments which proved this to be the case and the first primitive radar system, in which radio waves were sent out and reflections from distant objects detected, was patented by German engineer Christian Hulsmeyer in 1904. Little was done to develop this use of radio waves until the late 1930’s when the threat of war led to at least eight countries – France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States—independently developing radar. Britain’s air-defense radar system (known as Chain Home) was in place before the Second World War actually began as the government was aware of the very real threat from the German Luftwaffe, and during the next six years of conflict scientists and engineers found dozens of ways of using the simple and yet highly adaptable radar.

Chain_home
Chain Home

A committee set up by th British government in the 1930’s to consider the problem of air defence originally come up with the idea of using electromagnetic waves to develop a ‘death ray’, thankfully Robert Watson-Watt convinced them that this was a bad idea and to concentrate on an aircraft detection system instead! He recognised the importance of being able to see planes from a distance and follow their course in overcast weather or at night. Rapid progress was made as Watson-Watt used what he called his ‘third best principle’ – the best is usually unattainable and the second best unavailable until too late – this meant that they went with the ‘third best’ option and devised a system which worked with two antennas, one for transmitting and one for receiving, as they still had to develop a single antenna to do both. By 1939 a chain of eighteen radar stations was set up to cover the south and east coast of England. Chain Home, as it was called, used fixed transmitters to send out a broad beam of radio pulses to detect planes which were approaching at 1,500 – 2,000 feet; the stations were positioned on cliffs and high ground to give them a greater detection range and they could ‘see’ planes up to 200 miles away. The system was further developed in 1940 with the introduction of a new ground-based radar which could detect low-flying aircraft and ships. This was called Chain Home Low and differed from Chain Home by using a rotating aerial to transmit a narrow beam, rather like a searchlight. It could detect aircraft flying at 500ft from 110 miles away and display the information on a circular screen similar to modern radar displays. Stations could be set up on cliff tops, but if the coastal area they were protecting was low lying the transmitter and receiver would be mounted on towers 200 feet high.

radar operatorWomen in the WAAF worked in these radar centres. When a signal was received from approaching aircraft it was displayed on a green cathode ray tube. This showed the pulse sent out by the transmitter moving in from the edge of the screen with the target aircraft positioned in the centre. The screen could be calibrated for anything up to 200 miles which enabled the operator to ‘zoom in’ on the approaching craft. The radar operator would move a cursor over the position of the aircraft and the information was automatically sent to a calculating machine along with further information which enabled it to work out the plane’s height as well as position. This information was then sent to the mapping room with a large table on which the planes were positioned, a visual aid which made it easier for non-technical officers to direct the defending planes.

Chain Home was a massive step forward in air defence but it did have its problems. As the stations faced out to the sea contact was lost with enemy aircraft once they crossed the coastline, and Chain Home Low could not help either as it was difficult to distinguish between planes and signals from the ground. So the Observer Corps was given the job of watching the skies with tradition means (binoculars) and plotting enemy aircraft formations. Another problem was that although Chain Home picked up signals from approaching aircraft the signals could be misinterpreted and so inaccurate information about enemy strength and height could be passed to Air Command which meant that British fighter pilots could be put in dangerous situations, but the benefits far outweighed the drawbacks as the pilots no longer needed to conduct continuous air patrols.

The first serious use of radar came during the Battle of Britain when Chain Home was able to intercept approaching German bombers and fighters. It was even possible to ‘see’ the enemy at night with Air Interception (AI) (which allowed fighter planes to fly directly towards enemy bombers at night), Ground Control Interception (GCI) and the Plan Position Indicator (PPI), all thanks to radar; it was also possible for searchlights to use radar to help target planes for the anti-aircraft guns.

proximity-fuze-diagram
Proximity fuse

There were a number of other developments in the use of radar during the Second World War:

  • Proximity fuse – a tiny radar set built into each artillery shell to trigger detonation when the shell was close to its target. By the end of the war 22 million had been produced and were particularly effective when used by anti-aircraft artillery.
  • IFF – Identification Friend or Foe, which enabled Allied planes to identify each other using radar signals.
  • H2S – an Air Interception system which could display a map of the ground below in an aircraft.
  • Gee – a system of navigation which let bombers know their exact position at any time on their journey to Germany. Without Gee the 1,000-bomber raids would never have been possible.
  • Oboe – a positioning system which allowed two bases back in England to pinpoint planes when they were directly over their target; Oboe made it possible for precision attacks on munitions factories in the Ruhr and on missile bases on the north coast of Europe.
  • ASV – a Coastal Command aircraft carrying an ASV device could use it to pinpoint a U-boat on the surface; in conjunction with a similar device on destroyers and corvettes the Allies were finally able to defeat the German submarine menace which threatened to starve Britain into submission.
Frankreich, Radargerät "Würzburg"
Wurzburg

We often forget that Germany had its own effective radar systems on their bombers during the first months of the war. They also positioned their “Würzburg” system on the north coast of France to detect approaching aircraft. So why did radar seem to be much more successful for the Allies than the enemy? This can be put down, in part, to the attitude of those in positions of power with the Battle of Britain being a prime example. On 15th August 1940, at the height of the Battle, Reichsmarschall Göering decided to halt attacks on Chain Home stations; his reasoning was that “It is doubtful whether there is any point in continuing attacks on radar sites, in view of the fact that not one of those attacked so far has been put out of action.” Unlike Göering, however, ACM Dowding recognised just how important radar was and what a benefit it would be if fully integrated into air strategy. The fact that the Germans stopped targeting the radar stations strengthened the British defence and played a critical role in the final victory of the Battle of Britain. As Sir William Douglas commented, “I think we can say that the Battle of Britain might never have been won… if it were not for the radar chain”.

radar towers.jpg

Canvey Island by James Runcie

canvey islandIt is 1953 in Canvey Island. Len and Violet are at a dance. Violet’s husband George sits and watches them sway and glide across the dance floor, his mind far away, trapped by a war that ended nearly ten years ago. Meanwhile, at home, a storm rages and Len’s wife Lily and his young son Martin fight for their lives in the raging black torrent. The night ends in a tragedy that will reverberate through their lives. This poignant novel follows the family’s fortunes from the austerity of the post-war years to Churchill’s funeral, from Greenham Common to the onset of Thatcherism and beyond, eloquently capturing the very essence of a transforming England in the decades after the war. It is a triumph of understated emotion, a novel about growing up and growing old, about love, hope and reconciliation.

If, like me, you are a child of the 50’s or 60’s there is much in this novel which will take you back to your childhood and beyond, reliving stories and experiences which you may have forgotten yet which suddenly come flooding back to life as the author weaves together the stories of a cast of very real characters. As Martin and his mother fight for their lives during the terrible floods of 1953 your heart goes out to the young child then, as the years goes by, you see him change as he struggles with his emotions, and you sympathise with the way this one early experience structures the whole of his future life. Although Mr Runcie does not mention Post Traumatic Stress specifically it is clear from the way Martin interacts with the people he loves that this is the core of what drives him to his chosen career and blights his personal relationships.

Mr Runcie has cleverly structured his novel so that each chapter is written in the first person by one of the main characters and so enables us to delve more deeply into their emotional drives and feelings. Through this Mr Runcie is able to explore different views on ideas which have evolved over the years to shape the world we live in today– the role of women, nuclear disarmament, environmental protection, racism – there is something in this novel which will resonate with everyone. The author of Canvey Island has got to the heart of what it meant to grow up in the second half of the twentieth century. As you read this novel you are immersed in the sights and sounds of a period of rapid change – the life of a fisherman on Canvey island, the Christmas gifts which people gave in the 1950’s, the ubiquitous Avon Lady of the 60’s, the women’s camps at Greenham Common, the long hot summer of 1976, the Winter of Discontent 1979. Anyone who has lived through those times will recognise the detailed research which the author has carried out to enable him to bring these snapshots of British life sharply into focus.

Above everything else, though, Canvey Island is a novel about people – the emotional description of a family funeral juxtaposed against that of a state funeral as the nation pays its last respects to Churchill, the struggle of a child who misses his mother yet sees his father forming a new relationship, moving from the excitement of early romance to the domesticity of married life, coming to terms with your own mortality. This is a lovely piece of social history built around characters who are flawed yet draw sympathy and understanding from us. Mr Runcie writes with sensitivity and truth which makes this novel quite compelling in many ways, although I felt the ending was a little abrupt and would have liked perhaps one more short chapter to see what happened to Martin next.

This is an absorbing read although not a fast paced thriller, but if you are interested in people and what makes them tick then you are sure to enjoy Canvey Island.

Canvey Island can be found on Amazon

You can find more of my Recommended Reads here

V For Victory – the sign which Churchill appropriated from the Belgians

victor de laveleyeWe have all seen photos of Winston Churchill giving his famous ‘V for Victory’ sign during the Second World War, but we actually have Belgian tennis star Victor de Laveleye to thank for this iconic sign. de Laveleye competed in the 1920 and 1924 Olympic Games for Belgium, but he was also a politician who served as Minister of Justice in 1937. As the Germans pushed west in 1940 de Laveleye fled to Britain where he was put in charge of the BBC’s broadcasts to occupied Belgium and soon became the symbol of free Belgians everywhere. On 14th January 1941 Laveleye asked all Belgians to use the letter ‘V’ as a symbol of resistance and a rallying cry to fight the invaders because, he said, ‘V is the first letter of Victoire (victory) in French and Vrijheid (freedom) in Flemish, like the Walloons and the Flemish who today walk hand in hand, two things that are consequences of each other, Victory will give you Freedom’. He went on to say that “the occupier, by seeing this sign, always the same, infinitely repeated, [will] understand that he is surrounded, encircled by an immense crowd of citizens eagerly awaiting his first moment of weakness, watching for his first failure.” The Belgian people willingly adopted the sign and the letter immediately began to appear daubed on walls in Belgium, the Netherlands, Northern France, and other parts of Europe, a symbolic act of defiance against the Nazis.

håkon_7._malt_i_veien
Resistance graffiti on a road in Norway the V sign cradeling the initials of King Haakon VII

churchill v signWinston Churchill realised how successful this symbol was in uniting people against Hitler’s regime and decided to use it during a speech in July 1941 when he said that ‘The V sign is the symbol of the unconquerable will of the occupied territories and a portent of the fate awaiting Nazi tyranny. So long as the people continue to refuse all collaboration with the invader it is sure that his cause will perish and that Europe will be liberated.” Churchill continued to use the sign as his ‘signature gesture’ for the remainder of the war.

Soon after Churchill’s broadcast Douglas Ritchie at the BBC noticed that the Morse code for V was three dots and a dash ( …_ ) which was the same as the rhythm for the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and the BBC used it in its foreign language programmes directed at occupied Europe for the rest of the war. It was not long before the rhythm was used as a symbol of defiance in Europe, one which people could tap out almost anywhere.

In Germany Goebbels, the Nazi Propaganda Minister, was infuriated by the ‘V campaign’, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. He tried to argue that because ‘V’ was the first letter of the German word ‘viktoria’ and the musical representation was from a symphony written by a German composer then it was really a symbol in support of the Nazi’s final victory and was a sign of the conquered population’s support of Hitler, but of course no one believed him. To try to bury the use of the symbol by the resistance the Germans started using the ‘V’ themselves, even the Eiffel tower had a ‘V’ with the slogan ‘Germany is Victorious on All Fronts’ underneath.

the eiffel tower during the nazi occupation, 1940
TheEeiffel Tower during the German occupation of France

churchill reverse v sign

 

When Churchill first used the ‘V’ sign he sometimes did it with palm facing in until it was pointed out to him that this had a rather rude meaning for the working classes; from then on Churchill made a point of holding his hand palm outwards. Of course, the sign appealed to many people precisely because of its ‘double entendre’ meaning – with a simple movement of the wrist they could indicate a belief in victory and also tell Hitler where to go!

poster

 

 

 

 

America also took the ‘V’ sign to heart and it appeared in numerous places, including on this poster from the War Production Board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Four years after de Laveleye first urged the use of the ‘V’ sign the Allies finally achieved Victory in Europe, and months later came Victory against Japan, but by that time the iconic Second World War symbol of defiance had become so embedded in the minds of the people that it is still used today.

ve day
The ground crew of a Lancaster bomber return the ‘V for Victory’ sign projected into the sky by a neighbouring searchlight crew on VE Day.

There are some interesting pictures of the use of the ’V’ sign during the Second World War in this video

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