Annie Proulx’s enthralling, multigenerational epic, Barkskins, opens in 1693 in the vast North Woods of New France (now Canada) with the arrival from France of two indentured woodcutters, or “barkskins.” René Sel feels with the first swings of his axe that he is “embarking on his life’s work.” But, blunted hatchet in hand, the ailing Charles Duquet can only nibble at his first tree. Duquet soon flees into the forest, changes his name to Duke and reappears as the canny founder of a Boston-based timber empire. Sel falls in love with a Mi’kmaw woman and fathers three children who mostly view themselves as native people.
The remainder of this 700-plus-page novel follows the lives of the Sel and Duke descendants up until 2013. The story unfolds against a background of social and political upheavals, beginning with the French and Indian war and ending with contemporary environmental conflicts. The Sels struggle to maintain a native culture as the natural world is altered by forces in which, for their own livelihoods, they must participate. The more powerful Duke family, whose timber interests eventually range throughout the world, has its own set of tragedies—and comedies.
Proulx’s human characters—their lives and deaths—are vividly conceived. Her portrayals of them are nuanced. In a recent interview, Proulx said she has been thinking about and researching this book for many years. It shows. Barkskins brims with a granular sense of human experience over a period of 300 years. And like many novels by excellent writers, Barkskins encourages understanding, if not empathy, for characters whose outlooks we might usually dismiss. The idea that the vast forests of North America could never be diminished, for example, is expressed often by her early characters. With hindsight, we scoff at such a notion today. But Proulx allows us to feel the reasonableness and need for such an outlook at the time, making us question our easy assumptions about people of the past.
And yet the most moving and most consistent character of Barkskins is the world’s forests. One of the great achievements of this novel is to create a sort of tragic personality for the environment. Proulx’s beautiful prose renders an exultant view of the life of forest worlds lost to us, in both their grandeur and their indifferent menace. It will be very difficult for someone to finish reading Barkskins without a deep sense of loss.