Finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Best Novel
A New York Times Notable Book
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year From Annie Proulx--the Pulitzer Prize-- and National Book Award--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. Read more...
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Finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Best Novel
A New York Times Notable Book
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year From Annie Proulx--the Pulitzer Prize-- and National Book Award--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, Rene 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. Rene 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. Proulx's inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid--in their greed, lust, vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope--that we follow them with fierce attention. Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable and compelling American writers, and Barkskins is her greatest novel, a magnificent marriage of history and imagination.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2016-02-29
- Reviewer: Staff
Very long novels have perennially commanded our attention—Donna Tartt, Marlon James, Hanya Yanagihara, and Garth Risk Hallberg have written four of the most discussed novels of the past three years; they are all more than 700 pages. But Annie Proulx’s Barkskins is remarkable not just for its length, but for its scope and ambition—it spans more than 300 years and includes a cast of dozens. It’s a monumental achievement, one that will perhaps be remembered as her finest work. Structured in 10 novella-length sections, the book begins with two Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, who arrive in New France (now Canada) in 1693 to work for a local seigneur in exchange for land. The first section is about Sel, a born woodsman who fathers three children with Mari, a Mi’kmaq woman. The second follows Duquet, the wilier of the two, who runs away and, snatching up tracts of woodlands in the northeast, founds a timber company in Boston called Duke & Sons. The subsequent sections alternate between each man’s bloodline, tracing displacement, resettlement, and death, finishing in 2013. The descendants of Sel battle the erosion of Mi’kmaq culture (at the book’s end, their number dips below 1,500), often struggling to adapt as Europeans flood North America, while the Mi’kmaq drift and take labor jobs as they are uprooted. Among the Sels are Achille, René Sel’s son and a master hunter, who goes on a moose hunt but discovers English soldiers waiting when he returns home, and Jinot, a Sel descendant further down the line, who finds himself cutting huge kauri on an ill-fated journey to New Zealand. Meanwhile, Duquet’s descendants take up the family business. James Duke, Duquet’s great grandson whose “future flickered before him as a likely series of disappointments,” pushes west to find new sources of timber. And James’s daughter, the hungry and enterprising Lavinia, perhaps the book’s most memorable character, brings unprecedented growth during her time at the helm. The middle of the book can become a bit overwhelming, as the reader attempts to juggle all the new characters and story lines Proulx introduces, but, as in the best epics, the later pages are weighted with all that’s come before. Decisions and incidences have ramifications that pop back up again, often hundreds of years later, in astonishing ways. In relating character to setting, repeatedly showing how one influences the other, there are shades of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. But the forests are decimated, and characters are summarily, violently dispatched, often offstage. And as years pass in the space of a few pages, it becomes clear that history and time are the main characters here, each moment incremental and nearly insignificant in and of itself, but essential in shaping the world that emerges at the story’s conclusion. It’s exhilarating to read Proulx, a master storyteller; she is as adept at placing us in the dripping, cold Mi’kma’ki forests as in the stuffy Duke & Sons parlors. Despite the length, nothing seems extraneous, and not once does the reader sense the story slipping from Proulx’s grasp, resulting in the kind of immersive reading experience that only comes along every few years.
A saga of love and loss in Canada's unforgiving wilderness
Annie Proulx’s enthralling, multigenerational epic, Barkskins, opens in 1693 in the vast North Woods of New France (now Canada) with the arrival from France of two indentured woodcutters, or “barkskins.” René Sel feels with the first swings of his axe that he is “embarking on his life’s work.” But, blunted hatchet in hand, the ailing Charles Duquet can only nibble at his first tree. Duquet soon flees into the forest, changes his name to Duke and reappears as the canny founder of a Boston-based timber empire. Sel falls in love with a Mi’kmaw woman and fathers three children who mostly view themselves as native people.
The remainder of this 700-plus-page novel follows the lives of the Sel and Duke descendants up until 2013. The story unfolds against a background of social and political upheavals, beginning with the French and Indian war and ending with contemporary environmental conflicts. The Sels struggle to maintain a native culture as the natural world is altered by forces in which, for their own livelihoods, they must participate. The more powerful Duke family, whose timber interests eventually range throughout the world, has its own set of tragedies—and comedies.
Proulx’s human characters—their lives and deaths—are vividly conceived. Her portrayals of them are nuanced. In a recent interview, Proulx said she has been thinking about and researching this book for many years. It shows. Barkskins brims with a granular sense of human experience over a period of 300 years. And like many novels by excellent writers, Barkskins encourages understanding, if not empathy, for characters whose outlooks we might usually dismiss. The idea that the vast forests of North America could never be diminished, for example, is expressed often by her early characters. With hindsight, we scoff at such a notion today. But Proulx allows us to feel the reasonableness and need for such an outlook at the time, making us question our easy assumptions about people of the past.
And yet the most moving and most consistent character of Barkskins is the world’s forests. One of the great achievements of this novel is to create a sort of tragic personality for the environment. Proulx’s beautiful prose renders an exultant view of the life of forest worlds lost to us, in both their grandeur and their indifferent menace. It will be very difficult for someone to finish reading Barkskins without a deep sense of loss.