Leigh Charlton, News Editor
Nowhere is the tragedy that is the loss of the New World’s vast swathes of forest more evident than in Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s fifth novel. This 713-page-book follows two French indentured servants and their descendants as they explore the forests of the American colonies and beyond. The two servants are brought over from France by the same man and put to work logging in wild territory. One of the two, the wily Charles Duquet, escapes the harsh labor at his first opportunity. Having witnessed how quickly the beaver population, and by extension the fur trade, was exhausted, he chose to stake his fortune on the seemingly boundless timberlands of North America. Through a combination of ruthlessness, ambition, and quick thinking, Duquet founds a logging empire that succeeds and struggles over generations of the Duquet family.
Closely entwined with the fate of the Duquets is that of the Sels, the less-prosperous descendants of the other indentured servant. Rene Sel chose not to run away and quickly learned to navigate the dangerous life of a lumberjack. He was forced into marriage with a Native American woman, and their children live the unhappy lives of a race that most whites at the time wanted extinguished. Another theme is developed over the course of the book- one that mourns the loss of diverse Native American cultures as characters are killed or turn to substance abuse. Proulx masterfully weaves the lives of the Sel family in and out of that of the Duquet family, contrasting the hardworking lumberjacks to the wealthy landowners.
This book is beyond depressing, but incredible in its detail and creativity. The best way that I can describe it is as a tapestry- finely woven and with many overlapping elements. It centers on shortsighted greed and the rapid consumption of what once were some of the largest forests in the world while simultaneously showing the beauty of Mi’kmaw culture and the tragedy of its loss. Also, everyone dies. In a book that spans approximately 300 years, you can expect some death, but in Barkskins characters are dropping left and right. Fortunately, they reproduce even faster than they die off so both dynasties are able to struggle onwards. This brings me to one of the problems that I had with this book- in such a detailed history with a large, ever-changing cast of characters, it occasionally becomes difficult to keep track of who is related to whom or even where the character that you’re reading about came from. Proulx also struggles at times to reign in the overwhelming amount of detail she uses, leading to occasional boredom. In the end, however, it’s worth it.