Barkskins by Annie Proulx
In 1693, in a muddy riverbank settlement of New France, René Sel and Charles Duquet meet their new master Monsieur Trépagny and journey inland to begin a new settlement. With the promise of land at the completion of their servitude, Sel and Duquet work to build Trépagny’s homestead and help establish him as a significant landowner of New France. Eventually their team frays: Duquet disappears into the wilderness while Sel finds himself coerced into marriage to Mari, Trépagny’s Mi’kmaq maid.
The separation of Sel and Duquet form the two pillars of Proulx’s excellent Barkskins, an ecological epic spanning over three hundred years of family success and adventure in newly-settled America. The Sel and Duke (formerly Duquet) family trees grow rampantly throughout the country’s colonization and industrialization. While Sel “saw himself as a dust mote in the wind of life, going where the drafts of that great force carried him,” Charles Duke and his heirs took a more entrepreneurial approach to the frontier:
His agile mind ceaselessly worked over the question: what resource existed in this new world that was limitless, that had value, that could build a fortune? He rejected living creatures such as beaver, fish, seals, game or birds, all subject to sudden disappearance and fickle markets. He repeatedly came back to the same conclusion. There was one everlasting commodity that Europe lacked: the forest.
As the Duke & Sons logging empire expands around the globe, the Sels and their Mi’kmaq heritage shrinks with the forests they once called home. While never clashing with the drama of two warring tribes, the tension between these families is subtly heartbreaking as Proulx calculatingly pits them unknowingly against each other.
Some readers will find the ecological and environmentalist message of Barkskins to be a blight on an otherwise exceptional novel. Proulx is heavy-handed with her tree imagery and the peal of axe-on-trunk resounds weightily throughout many scenes in the book:
As he cut, the wildness of the world receded, the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animals, trees to flesh and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped.
This is a passage about Monsieur Trépagny from early in the novel but it makes little difference who’s chopping, as the entire book is about this gradual recession of the world’s wildness. Barkskins browbeats with message, and those readers hesitant to indulge in that kind of prose will find the novel problematic and repetitive with every fallen tree and snuffed-out character. However, those readers that simply accept Barkskins to be a book with an agenda will be rewarded with an inspired multi-generational family saga, deftly tuned into each new era as time lumbers onward.
The fatality rate of Barkskins is remarkably high, with characters often being first introduced and killed within sixty or so pages of each other. Proulx at times seems to delight in these frequent, episodic deaths. The expendability of man is noticeably potent in a novel where its characters routinely fell ancient, centuries-old trees, but by not being caught up in what seems to be an eco-friendly agenda, one can look deeper into Proulx’s message and see that she’s not so much interested in tree-hugging as she is human-shaming. “Consider settlers as human birds of prey,” one character says, in a warning that exemplifies our innate tendencies to put our own best interests first.
Late in the novel, characters begin to adopt awareness of their ecologically aggressive heritage. One distant descendant of Charles Duke scrawls this missive in a journal, effectively a closing argument for Barkskins:
Nothing in the natural world, no forest, no river, no insect nor leaf has any intrinsic value to men. All is worthless, utterly dispensable unless we discover some benefit to ourselves in it — even the most ardent forest lover thinks this way. Men behave as overlords. They decide what will flourish and what will die. I believe that humankind is evolving into a terrible new species and I am sorry that I am one of them.
Perhaps mourning the forests is not the answer, and those concerns should instead be turned inward.