Proulx’s commanding epic about the annihilation of our forests is nothing less than a sylvan Moby-Dick.
Barkskins are tree people, which includes not only loggers and foresters but truly all of humankind, given our reliance on these pillars of life. In her copious historical woodland saga, Pulitzer Prize–and National Book Award–winner Proulx tells the stories of those who loved and those who destroyed North America’s vast verdant forests. Just as she follows the trail of a musical instrument across America and much of the twentieth century in Accordion Crimes (1996), in Barkskins, Proulx follows the decimating trail of the ax and sawmill, tracking the simultaneous annihilation of the forests and the lives and cultures of Native peoples who had lived for millennia in knowledgeable symbiosis with the wilderness and its sheltering, sustaining trees.
Proulx’s signature passion and concern for nature as well as her unnerving forensic fascination with all the harm that can befall the human body charge this rigorously researched, intrepidly imagined, complexly plotted, and vigorously written multigenerational epic. The story begins in the dense, mosquito-fierce north woods in New France (now Canada) at the turn of the seventeenth century. Upon their arrival, two indentured Frenchmen, sickly Charles Duquet and sturdy René Sel, are shocked by the harshness of the land and the brutality of their master and soon find themselves caught up in the struggling colony’s battles against the Native people, the English, and nature itself. Cunning and ruthless, Charles escapes, while hardworking, upright René stays, perfecting his woodsman skills and becoming part of a mixed-race family. Ultimately, these two men and their descendants embody both sides of the quickly coalescing timber business, the tree cutters and the tree sellers. René and his progeny, many of whom have a deep affinity for trees, suffer the horrors and sorrows of the genocidal war against Native Americans and the traumas of being caught between diametrically opposed legacies. Charles becomes a successful trader, traveling to China, setting up shop in Boston, changing his name to Duke, and establishing a timber dynasty.
Proulx’s commanding, perspective-altering
epic will be momentous.
Proulx’s extensive and compelling cast (she provides two family trees) includes many independent women, including Mari, a Mi’kmaq skilled in the use of medicinal plants; tough and generous Beatrix, whose love for Kuntaw forges a long-secret connection between the Sel and Duke families; brilliant and determined Lavinia, who takes over the Duke family timber industry during the steamship and railroad era; and, in our time of environmental crises, forester Sapatisia, who is gravely concerned about the future of the living world. As is Proulx.
Other fiction writers have looked to the past and the simultaneous assaults against Native Americans and the North American wilderness for insights into our current ecological dilemmas. Simpatico novels include The Living (1992) by Annie Dillard, Gardens in the Dunes (1999) by Leslie Marmon Silko, Solar Storms (1995) by Linda Hogan, Revenants: A Dream of New England (2011) by Daniel Mills, and Honey from the Lion (2015) by Matthew Neill Null.
Barkskins is nothing less than a sylvan Moby-Dick replete with ardently exacting details about tree cutting from Canada and Maine to Michigan, California, and New Zealand, with dramatic cross-cultural relationships and with the peculiar madness catalyzed by nature’s glory. Here, too, are episodes of profound suffering and loss, ambition and conviction, courage and love. With a forthcoming National Geographic Channel series expanding its reach, Proulx’s commanding, perspective-altering epic will be momentous.
This review first appeared in the April 15, 2016, issue of Booklist.