For 10 years, Annie Proulx — perhaps best-known for her glorious prizewinning novel “The Shipping News” as well as her short story “Brokeback Mountain” — has been writing her epic new novel that spans more than 300 years and fills more than 700 pages. “Barkskins” follows the lives of two families from the moment their respective ancestors — René Sel and Charles Duquet — were brought from Europe to this continent in the 17th century. They came to the forests of New France (Canada) near present-day Quebec City to fulfill their duties as indentured servants to one Monsieur Trépagny.
Almost from the beginning, Sel and Duquet become separated, and circumstances suggest that Sel will have the better, easier life, and perhaps be the only survivor of the two. But Proulx is a brilliant writer known for not revealing truths too early, and much happens that reverses that obvious course. For both men, though, the world is a vast forest filled with trees waiting to be felled; as Trépagny tells us, “we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.”
“Barkskins” is all about forests, trees, lumber and ecosystems, over the course of three centuries all the way to the present day. Set mostly in Maine, Nova Scotia, Quebec and Chicago, but also in Europe, China and New Zealand, this hugely ambitious (and huge) novel follows the lives of people whose survival and prosperity is dependent upon trees.
And over that course two divergent interests and sensibilities develop within these families. Sel married a Mi’kmaw woman, and thus began a line of the family that would forever be associated with native people in Canada and the United States; Duquet changed his name to Duke and married a Dutch woman, assuring his family’s European-based heritage.
This dichotomy advances throughout the novel: native people who treat the woods respectfully, caring for animals, fish, plants and other life-sustaining elements, but who are subjugated by the growing number of encroaching white Europeans who see forests as waiting to be plundered for manufacturing or for firewood and replaced with “civilized” farms.
There are so many characters (there are two family trees appended) that little time is spent developing any of them. Yet Proulx’s lyrical prose and great descriptive prowess keeps this potentially rambling novel intact and gives flashes of personality in just a few words (“Benton Dred-Peacock, dressed in smart clothes of the best quality but with a face that seemed made from stale bread crusts”).
With “Barkskins,” Proulx has created a moving opus of evolving Western environmental values in novel form. How society has arrived at our present-day calamitous time of climate change is seen through the eyes and actions of these memorable characters created by this gifted author.
Jim Carmin is a member of the National Book Critics Circle who lives in Portland, Ore.
By: Annie Proulx.
Publisher: Scribner, 736 pages, $30