Annie Proulx is a fearless writer. In her epic new novel, Barkskins, she takes on an enormous story that spans more than three centuries, moving across North America with side trips to Europe, South America and New Zealand. The book is richly populated by six generations of two intertwined families, with an overarching theme as towering as the magnificent old growth forests on which one of those families makes (and loses) fortunes.
Proulx is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Shipping News and for her short story Brokeback Mountain, which became an Oscar-winning film. Barkskins is her first book in eight years (and her first novel in 14), and she clearly put a wealth of research as well as brilliant imagination into its creation.
Other writers have focused epic novels on a single industry as a microcosm of American culture and history, from whaling in Herman Melville's Moby-Dick to cattle ranching in Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove. Proulx builds her story around the timber industry, which dates to the earliest European incursions into North America and, like Melville's whaling and McMurtry's ranching, provides a cast of colorful characters — and a means of examining their relationships to the natural world and the continent's indigenous people.
The novel opens in 1693 with the arrival in New France (in what is now Quebec) of two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet. They have signed on as indentured servants to a landowner named Claude Trépagny, and they have no idea what they are in for.
During the long hours and days it takes to walk to Trépagny's remote home, the newcomers are astounded by the verdant landscape. "It is the forest of the world," Trépagny tells them. "It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension."
But their job will be to cut down as much of it as possible. Trépagny, like most Christian settlers, sees it as his God-given duty to tame the wilderness, and the first step is chopping down the centuries-old, 150-foot-tall white pines that dominate that forest to ready the land for farming. As another character says, looking at them, he does not see beautiful trees: "I see cabbages."
But what white men do see in the felled trees is profit. René Sel will work for years for Trépagny; eventually he will be forced to marry his master's common-law wife, Mari, a Mi'kmaq Indian, so Trépagny can marry a rich Frenchwoman. René will never see the profits of his prodigious labor, although he will have a happier family than Trépagny's and many descendants who over the centuries will try, with varying success, to live in the traditional Mi'kmaq way.
Duquet's is a very different story. He hightails it away from Trépagny's place as soon as it becomes clear what the conditions are like. (When Duquet complains of a toothache, Trépagny yanks all his teeth out with pliers to save time later.) Escaping through the wilderness nearly kills Duquet and calls for desperate measures: "As he crept along the rediscovered river he found small frogs and one more duckling that he caught and ate, cowering under the hammering beak and painful wing blows of the mother."
(Proulx's delicious prose is often at its most vivid when she's writing about the harshness of frontier life and the tremendous dangers of its occupations, and that's certainly true of this book. It is, among other things, a compendium of bizarre and terrible deaths, from an entire household perishing of cholera in a matter of hours to a logger pinched by a splitting tree as if in a monstrous clothespin. Don't look here for rosy nostalgia about the good old days on the frontier.)
Duquet becomes first a fur trader (who prospers by getting Indians drunk before buying their furs) and then a huge success in the timber business. As one partner says, "He has a monstrous good head for business and, as you say, a will to dominate. And a rather terrifying lust for work."
Many of Duquet's descendants, who change their name to Duke as their business migrates to Boston and later Chicago, inherit those traits. They build their own sawmills, then their own ships, later their own railroads. They make money on the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, both world wars and all the skirmishes in between.
The lives of the Sel and Duke families diverge widely, except for one fateful connection: René's grandson Kuntaw will marry Charles' granddaughter Beatrix.
Barkskins has a large cast — there are four pages of family trees in the back of the book — but that's a showcase for Proulx's gift for creating lively, complex characters. Even minor characters get memorable descriptions, like the provincial governor who is "a haughty snob. ... (who) gave off an air of having hung in a silk bag in the adjoining room until it was time for him to emerge and perform the duties of his position."
As the decades passed, I often found myself wishing to know more about one character or another, but the author braids all those people and all their plot lines together so skillfully that the book becomes a satisfying whole. Proulx's style is inimitably her own, but it echoes here with those of great influences: Dickens, Melville, Twain, Faulkner and more.
The Dukes and the Sels flourish and reproduce, are struck low and die back, then rise again, like forests in smaller scale. Over time, the rapacious Dukes grow stronger, and the nostalgic Sels diminish. Just before he dies deep in the rainforests of Brazil, foreseeing and mourning that ecosystem's demise, Charley, Charles Duquet's great-great-great-grandson, writes in his journal, "I believe that humankind is evolving into a terrible new species and I am sorry that I am one of them."
And yet a Sel, Sapatisia, gets the book's last words; she is a scientist and passionate environmentalist who asks, "What can I do but keep on trying?" As Barkskins marches into the 21st century, its essential question becomes clear: Which will outlast the other, human beings or forests?
Contact Colette Bancroft at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.