I love novels that span generations and tell stories of families, dysfunctional and otherwise. Some of my all-time favorite books are epic tales of families told over hundreds of years, like Gabriel García Márquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” Jess Walters’ “Beautiful Ruins,” and Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex.” It should come as no surprise then that I was eager to read “Barkskins,” Annie Proulx’s saga of two 17th century immigrants to New France and the generations they spawned over the course of the following 300 plus years. Yep, I was worked up about a 736 page story about loggers!
It’s probably worth noting that Annie Proulx is one of the world’s best writers and the esteemed author of my favorite novel — “The Shipping News.” So I was certainly predisposed to enjoy “Barkskins”, despite its density. And truthfully, “Barkskins” is not for everyone. Some of the reader reviews I read on the Interwebs suggested the book was incredibly boring and long-winded and many readers put it down (or threw it away) after the first few chapters. Others, however, raved about the story of Rene Sel and Charles Duquet and their descendants. I couldn’t put it down.
It’s pretty easy for my family to know when I’m enjoying a book — whenever they look over at me lounging on the sofa, my head will be buried in my tablet. This was definitely the case with “Barkskins,” which I devoured over the course of a week or so. I originally borrowed it from the library’s digital collection, but after a week I went ahead and purchased it so I could take my time and fold into the story with no concern about it expiring. Plus, $14.99 is a small price to pay for a novel that will stay with me for so long.
“Barkskins” is brilliant on several levels. First, Proulx is such a gorgeous writer her words flow like a river through a forest (see what I did there?). The story itself though is what makes this novel so absorbing. Proulx uses the history of the Sel family and the Duquet family to show the dichotomy of fortune in the new world. Both families are tied to the great forests of the American-Canadian northeast, but while one builds a tremendous fortune from logging the other suffers through generations of poverty and misery at the hands of the very same trees. At the same time, “Barkskins” is a story about the new world itself, how it literally grew out of the trees and how the growth of the new world used and displaced the vast forests. And Proulx gives us yet another layer of intrigue in the stories of how the Europeans came to the new world and ruthlessly savaged its native peoples for generations (and in many ways still does today).
Yet while we follow the stories of the Sels and the Duquets, we also learn the true value of the forests. The novel has an environmental message at its heart, one that Proulx builds toward as the novel progresses. The reader comes to understand the great power of the forest, to build houses and cities, to build countries, to build (and destroy families) but perhaps at the cost of the health of the very same land and perhaps the entire planet. Proulx thankfully doesn’t preach about our destruction of the forest, but she does lead us to the conclusion that we are at a crossroads. I for one am very pessimistic about the future of the planet, especially given the state of world politics, but Proulx leaves us with a glimpse of a path toward environmental salvation. There are ways to repopulate the forests, but it’s definitely more difficult to rebuild what was so easy to tear down.
Annie Proulx most definitely has a place among my favorite authors, and “Barkskins” is a majestic narrative that may go down as her opus (she is 80 years old after all so this may be her last novel). For me it had everything — it spanned centuries, had rich and memorable characters, and it had a message of the impermanence of life that resonated tremendously with me.
Completely by coincidence, the next book in my queue is “The Monkey Wrench Gang” by Edward Abbey. I didn’t plan to read back-to-back stories about trees, but I’ll take it as a sign that I need to step up my environmental activism.