The book: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx (2016)
What it’s about: Barkskins starts out as the story of Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, two men who come to North America from France in 1693. Sel’s new life is one of extreme hardship, working to cut down the seemingly endless forests around him. He marries a Mi’kmaw woman and their children struggle to find footing in cultures at odds with one another. Duquet escapes the hard life of a woodsman, first becoming a fur trader and then building a timber empire. He views his children as heirs to the fortune he amasses from nothing. The novel follows the descendants of both Sel and Duquet, who later changes his name to Duke, all the way up to 2013, detailing their relationships with the forest, colonialism and family.
What I thought: I was so taken by this book on many levels. Proulx is a fabulous writer: her prose is beautiful and the depth of her research amazed me. She writes unflinchingly of the horrors of colonialism and the conquest both of the forests of the “new world” and the people who lived in them for centuries before Europeans arrived. I loved how the stories of the two families played off each other, twining together and coming apart like forest streams. I appreciated the contrast between the settler mentality and that of Indigenous people trying to hold onto themselves in a rapidly changing world. It was heartbreaking, but also so necessary to read. Barkskins is a sweeping family history but also a much larger story of habitat destruction, conservation and climate change; it is both historical fiction and a real-world, cautionary tale. I loved it.
From the opening pages: “The forest had many edges, like a lace altarpiece. Its moody darkness eased in the clearings. Unknown plants and curious blossoms caught their eyes, funereal spruce and hemlock, the bright new-growth puffs at the tips of the pine branches, silvery tossing willow, the mint green of new birth–a place where even the sunlight was green. As they approached one opening they heard an irregular clacking sound like sticks–grey bones tied in a tree, stirred by the wind. Monsieur Trepagny said that the sauvages often hung up the bones of a killed animal after thanking its spirit. He led them around beaver ponds protected by almost impenetrable alder queaches, warning that the narrow pathways were moose runs. They passed through wet country. Hollows brimmed with tea-coloured rainwater. The quaking sphagnum, punctuated with pitcher plants, sucked at every step. The young men had never imagined a country so wild and wet, so thickly wooded.”