In the late 1600s, two young men – René Sel and Charles Duquet – disembark as indentured servants in the wilderness of New France. Annie Proulx’s magnificent new novel, Barkskins, follows the adventures, triumphs, and hardships of Sel and Duquet’s descendants over the next three hundred years.
René Sel, an experienced woodsman, marries a Mi’Kmaq woman. His children and grandchildren eke out a living cutting trees as “barkskins” in the Canadian Maritimes and, later, across the continent. Even as the Sel family contributes to the destruction of their own forests, the Mi’Kmaq people face poverty, hunger, discrimination, and forced assimilation. Haunted by their work, later generations try to find solace in a subsistence lifestyle that is no longer possible.
Charles Duquet escapes his indenture and becomes a voyageur, trading for furs that he sells as far away as China. Duquet marries into a wealthy Dutch shipping family and adopts several sons to help him run his growing timber and fur business. Anglicizing the family name, Duke & Sons soon owns stands of timber across North America and as far afield as New Zealand. In the late nineteenth century, Charles’s great-great granddaughter becomes a formidable businesswoman, commanding a timber empire from the company’s headquarters in Chicago.
Although Proulx’s novel runs longer than 700 pages and includes hundreds of characters (don’t worry, there are family trees at the back of the book), the story was incredibly engaging. I found myself wishing that I could spend more time with some of Sel and Duquet’s colorful descendants. Readers, don’t worry if you don’t understand all of the French, German, Dutch, and Mi’Kmaq words – this fascinating novel will carry you along. Proulx also expertly interweaves famous historical events and inventions, without losing focus on her characters.
Proulx certainly has a moral to convey in Barkskins. She condemns the destruction of North America’s forests and constructs the novel as a conflict between those who believe that “forests are infinite” and those who understand that both forests and cultures cannot last to greed and rapacious appetites. Barkskins is not just an environmental novel, but also the story of how North America must reckon with its history of annihilation and exploitation.
Review Submitted by: Kaitlyn Grigsby
Rating: Must Read
Challenge: Book published in 2016