This story of the North East American forests begins with two men who arrive in New France from Europe. It is 1693 and they find work wielding axes, chopping down trees. Barkskins ends in 2013 with their English, French and Indian descendants learning about the disappearance of the native trees and plants. It is a chastening story but throughout, Annie Proulx’s descriptions of trees enable you to see and smell them.
Proulx’s reputation precedes her: the Pulitzer Prize, Brokeback Mountain, The Shipping News etcetera. For me she is one of the classic American authors but refuses to be pigeonholed. Barkskins is a huge tome, starting with René Sel and Charles Duquet’s struggles to survive, their contrasting stories and the subsequent lives of their families. Barkskins is more the story of the forests than of the Sel and Duquet/Duke families and their subsequent timber business.
The natural world has a huge part to play in this novel. The trees breathe on every page, as the settlers fight the forests and the native Indian tribes struggle to understand the newcomers. It ticks so many boxes: indigenous culture, sea voyages, logging, trade with China, herbal remedies, Dutch merchant vessels, the plundering of nature for man’s thoughtless consumption. Each generation of the Sel and Duquet families experiences the evolution of colonial power, demand for timber for construction, war, ships and railways, and this shows us the passing centuries.
There is humour, brutality, and beautiful description of the natural world. The depth of research is clear on every page and at 736 pages, it demands patient reading. But if you allow Proulx to pull you into her stories, it is worth the commitment. But perhaps it would be more easily digestible as a trilogy of novels. There was a disproportionate amount of time spent on the lives of René Sel and Charles Duquet, while the modern-day Sels and Dukes were covered too quickly for me. At the beginning I remembered who was related to who, but as the generations passed quickly I lost track. This could easily be corrected by the addition of a family tree or character list at the front of the book. And a map.
‘Barkskins’ by Annie Proulx [UK: Fourth Estate] Buy at Amazon
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