Sixteen ninety-three. New France (later eastern Canada). Two indentured servants from the old country, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, have arrived to start work felling trees in the wilderness on behalf of a titled Frenchman. Over the subsequent 320 years, the innumerable descendants of the two men have multiplied and spread throughout the Maritime Provinces of Canada, deep into the United States, and abroad.
Rene Sel fathered children with a Mi’kmaq Indian woman, and his numerous descendants have predominantly Indian blood. Meanwhile, the Duquet family — now Anglicized to Duke — has moved to the U.S. and grown wealthy in the timber business. As Annie Proulx tells their tale in Barkskins, circumstances have taken members of both families to distant lands: the Netherlands, China, New Zealand, Brazil. Along the way, they have experienced nearly every imaginable variety of tragedy, from forest fire to shipwreck, smallpox, cholera, domestic abuse, murder, and embezzlement.
Barkskins by Annie Proulx @@@ (3 out of 5)
In a sense, however, the central theme of Barkskins isn’t human history. It’s not primarily an historical novel detailing the story of two intertwined families. Rather, Barkskins is in its essence the sad tale of the decline of the world’s forests at the hands of greed-obsessed men and women — and of the admirable native people who vainly resist the incessant logging. If that juxtaposition comes across as excessively black and white, don’t blame it on me.
A tale of disappearing forests
From the outset, Proulx dwells on the savage destruction of Canada’s magnificent pine forests. As she takes the story into each successive era, the disappearance of the forests is never less than a major concern of her characters — not just in Canada, but in Maine, the U.S. Midwest and Northwest, New Zealand, and Brazil. Barkskins is, in the final analysis, an ecological tale. Unfortunately, in her final chapters, Proulx becomes outwardly preachy. There are so many characters — it seems as though hundreds are named in the course of the book — that they become as trees in a forest, difficult to distinguish from one another. The disappearing forest is the novel’s protagonist.
About the author
Annie Proulx is one of America’s most celebrated writers. More than twenty years ago she won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for Fiction for The Shipping News, her second novel. She has written five novels, four short story collections, and four books of nonfiction.
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