Barkskins A novel

Annie Proulx

Book - 2016

In the late seventeenth century, two illiterate woodsmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, make their way from Northern France to New France to seek a living. Bound to a feudal lord, a 'seigneur', for three years in exchange for land, they suffer extraordinary hardship, always in awe of the forest they are charged with clearing, sometimes brimming with dreams of its commercial potential. Rene marries an Indian healer, and they have children, mixing the blood of two cultures. Duquet travels... the globe and back, starting a logging company that will prosper for generations. Proulx tells the stories of the children, grandchildren, and descendants of these two lineages, the Sels and the Duquets, as well as the descendants of their allies and foes, as they travel back to Europe, to China, to New England, always in quest of a livelihood or a fortune, or fleeing stunningly brutal conditions - accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, the revenge of rivals.

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Epic fiction
Historical fiction
New York : Scribner 2016.
First Scribner hardcover edition
Physical Description
xii, 717 pages ; 25 cm
Main Author
Annie Proulx (author)
Review by New York Times Review

WHATEVER ELSE SHE'S writing about, the novelist and story writer Annie Proulx is always writing at least partly about our tempestuous relationship with nature. It's there in the forbidding seas of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Shipping News." It's there in the hardscrabble ranches and "bad dirt" of her Wyoming stories (including "Brokeback Mountain," where desire is the natural force that demands a reckoning). And it's there in her fifth and latest novel, "Barkskins" - a tale of long-term, shortsighted greed whose subject could not be more important: the destruction of the world's forests. Resource extraction on an industrial scale mostly exemplifies the infamous tragedy of the commons: namely, that degradation to the environment is a fractional cost divided among everybody around, while the benefit to each exploiter is a whole integer that need not be shared. For example, if I clear-cut a forest, I am damaging it for all of us, myself included - but since my profit accrues to me alone, I can happily ruin the place and move on. Thus "Barkskins." Proulx employs a sophisticated narrative strategy of oscillating focus. Sometimes the techno-commercial practices of a given era are foregrounded, as in this aphorism: "A man - if he's any good - makes eight axes a day. If he's no good he can make 10 or 12." Proulx pays admirable attention to the dichotomy between 19th-century wasteful American timbering and conservation-oriented German forestry practices, and to the possible symbiosis between Amerindian medicine plants and the healthy trees that surrounded them in pre-logging days. She vivifies these topics through such concisely effective landscape descriptions as this one from 18th-century Maine: "Sometimes he was on dim Indian trails following landmarks almost always obscured by the jagged skyline of conifers, but more often making his way through logging slash and blowdowns." And while getting all this across, "Barkskins" also manages to follow two French immigrants and their posterity over more than three centuries as they take down the forests of maritime Canada, Maine, New Zealand and Michigan. On his arrival in Canada in 1693, Charles Duquet (a murdering, thieving, indentured boor) stares at the green gloom around him and is informed: "It is the forest of the world. It is infinite." He runs away and goes into business. Around 1700 we find him in China, asking a local trader: "How far back can a forest withdraw before it replenishes itself?" The equivocal answer: "People must eat or they die. They need fuel to cook rice. They must keep warm. So trees fall." Returning to his original Canadian landing, he finds that "the landscape had been corrupted. ... For a moment he was frightened; if miles of forest could be removed so quickly by a few men with axes, was the forest then as vulnerable as beaver? No. ... These forests could not disappear. In New France they were vast and eternal." And as Kurt Vonnegut would have said, so it goes, right up to 20th-century Brazil, about which a Duquet descendant assures himself: "The rain forest is so large and rich it defeats all who try to conquer it." Schmoozing, risking and trading, Duquet becomes what we might now call a multinational. In an Amsterdam coffee-house he meets an Englishman who "had intimate business dealings with the newly appointed New England royal mast contractor." So Duquet learns the art of "procuring ownership of great white pine tracts by purchasing old township grants." He trades secretly with Scotland, Anglicizes his name to Duke, and by the time he meets his fate, the firm of Duke & Sons has become a perpetual motion machine, hacking and selling. Accompanying Duquet at the novel's opening is another servant named René Sel, who does not run away. In order to wed a wealthy Frenchwoman, the master discards his Micmac concubine, whom he marries to Sel. From their union springs the novel's other narrative thread. The mostly Euro-American Dukes sell lumber on an ever vaster scale, while the métis Sels struggle between subsistence in a blighted indigenous culture and badly compensated piecework in lumber extraction. "They all knew that river work was the most dangerous. ... That was why the boss gave the water work to the Indians." The chronicled generations come and go, fattening on dead trees, enacting and re-enacting the tragedy of the commons, whose addictive me-first arithmetic prevents most but not all of them from considering that someday the bottom must fall out for everybody. Annie Proulx is on the side of the angels. We need more writers like her to hammer home the message that we had better stop mistreating one another and our planet. Unfortunately, hammering is just what she does, as when she annotates a senator's remark that "the Constitution was made by whites for whites." ("After all," she inserts, "who else was there?" Ha, ha.) The whole novel suffers such two-dimensionality, as in one episode from the 1750s, when a Duke descendant complains about thievish competitors who logged his acres, then knocks out his pipe, which starts a fire. "In Boston the next day Bernard saw the distant smoke and reckoned it was in Duke & Sons' forestland; but fire could not be helped. Forests burned, according to God's will." That this supposedly canny fellow could be so careless of his own profit is preposterous, but Proulx loses sight of this in her zeal to remind us who the wastrels are. Worse yet are her stylistic infelicities. Sometimes her Native American characters speak a cigar-store pidgin to one another, only to drop it further down on the same page. Thus Achille Sel, explaining to his kinsmen, presumably in Micmac: "We got not much food now. We hunt today, go a little east." Three paragraphs later his speech patterns have changed: "And I see trees encumbered with knots of the fire-starting tinder." The effect is as ludicrous as Van Helsing's on-again, off-again Dutchisms in "Dracula." But although "Barkskins" comes out poorly when considered line by line, many characters linger in the mind: the Dutch wife who at her death is revealed to have been a man; the ardent wife whose father "taught her Everything she knows and she turned out Good"; the delightfully brave and businesslike Lavinia Duke, who "could not resist her nature" and so wrecks forest ecosystems without pity. Proulx is particularly effective in conveying the effect of one generation on the next. Consider the repercussions when Achille Sel, who still follows Micmac lifeways, returns from a sojourn into the uncut northern forests and finds his wigwam burned, his wife murdered by English soldiers. Leaving his son and nephew behind "until he sent word for them to come," he goes to seek out a "safe place" and, since there is none, drifts from one underpaid timbering job to the next, never coming home. In time Achille's damaged son, Kuntaw, abandons his own wife and child, starting a new life with a beautiful métis woman. "She needed him to make her an Indian," but soon she loses interest. Kuntaw's son Tonny tracks him down, but never can learn to love him and dies young. As for the remaining children, they find Kuntaw's Micmac teachings "only a kind of play. ... That world he wanted them to know had vanished." Now our own world is likewise fading, thanks to climate change. The root cause of our self-impoverishment is thoughtfully teased out in "Barkskins," whose best line may well be this: "My life has ever been dedicated to the removal of the forest for the good of men." 'These forests could not disappear,' a nervous timber baron reassures himself. WILLIAM T. VOLLMANN'S next book, "Carbon Ideologies," will appear in 2017.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [June 19, 2016] Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* 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 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 by Matthew Neill Null (2015). 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.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2016 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

It's a pleasure to listen to Petkoff's low-key, straightforward reading of Proulx's ambitious novel that spans 300 years and multiple locations. His reading is well paced and his diction clean and clear. But he faces the near-impossible task of rendering the foreign sentence structures and accented English dialogue of a huge variety of international characters in different periods of history. Proulx's characters are French, English, Spanish, Irish, Scottish, Dutch, Chinese, American, Canadian, and Native American. The pidgin English of Native American men, women, and children is especially distracting for the listener when read aloud, for it turns the listener's focus from the story to the accents. A Scribner hardcover. (June) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved Review by Library Journal Review

René Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in New France in the 1600s, penniless woodcutters bound to a seigneur (feudal lord), longing for freedom. Duquet escapes to Boston then Amsterdam while Sel is forced to marry Mari, a Mi'kmaw servant. Pulitzer Prize--winning Proulx (The Shipping News; Brokeback Mountain) traces the interconnected Sel and -Duquet families through the centuries. Charles changes his surname to Duke and adopts three orphans in addition to having a son, Outger, with his wife, Cornelia. The disappearance of Charles and news of Beatrix-a daughter of Outger living in the Duquet homestead on Penobscot Bay with Kuntaw Sel, grandson of René-galvanizes the adopted sons to subdue a métis claim to fortune. Jinot Sel, who suffers at logging camps in Maine and New Brunswick, finds an enigmatic benefactor. Headstrong -Lavinia Duke relocates the business from Boston to Chicago in the 1880s and marries rival Dieter Breitsprecher. Then Dieter's children sell the company after World War II. The Sels dwindle on reservations, wistfully watching their disappearing culture, unaware of their kin. VERDICT Proulx's intricate, powerful meditation on colonialism is both enthralling and edifying, each chapter building to the moving finale. [See Prepub Alert, 11/30/15.]-Stephanie -Sendaula, Library Journal © Copyright 2016. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

Renowned author Proulx (Bird Cloud: A Memoir, 2011, etc.) moves into Michener territory with a vast multigenerational story of the North Woods."How big is this forest?" So asks the overawed immigrant Charles Duquet, who, with his companion Ren Sel, has nowhere in the world to go but upand up by way of New France, a land of dark forests and clannish Mi'kmaq people, most of whom would just as soon be left alone. The answer: the forest is endless. Finding work as indentured "barkskins," or woodcutters, they wrestle a livelihood from the trees while divining that the woods might provide real wealth, kidnapping a missionary priest to teach Duquet how to read so that he might keep the books for a dreamed-of fortune. Ren founds a powerful local dynasty: "Here on the Gatineau," Proulx writes, "the Sels were a different kind of people, neither Mi'kmaq nor the other, and certainly not both." She drives quickly to two large themes, both centering on violence, the one the kind that people do to the land and to each other, the other the kind that the land itself can exact. In the end, over hundreds of pages, the land eventually loses, as Sels and their neighbors in the St. Lawrence River country fell the forests, sending timber to every continent; if they do not die in the bargain, her characters contribute to dynasties of their own: "He wanted next to find Josime on Manitoulin Island and count up more nieces and nephews. He had come out of the year of trial by fire wanting children." As they move into our own time, though, those children come to see that other wealth can be drawn from the forest without the need for bloodshed or spilled sap. Part ecological fable la Ursula K. Le Guin, part foundational saga along the lines of Brian Moore's Black Robe and, yes, James Michener's Centennial, Proulx's story builds in depth and complication without becoming unduly tangled and is always told with the most beautiful language. Another tremendous book from Proulx, sure to find and enthrall many readers. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.