Barkskins : a novel

by Annie Proulx

Paperback, 2016

Status

Available

Publication

New York : Scribner, 2016.

Description

"Bark Skins open in New France in the late 18th century as Rene Sel, an illiterate woodsman makes his way from Northern France to the homeland to seek a living. Bound to a "seigneur" for three years in exchange for land, he suffers extraordinary hardship and violence, always in awe of the forest he is charged with clearing. In the course of this epic novel, Proulx tells the stories of Rene's children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, as well as the descendants of his friends and foes, as they travel back to Europe, to China, to New England, always in quest of a livelihood or fleeing stunningly brutal conditions--war, pestilence, Indian attacks, the revenge of rivals. Proulx's inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid--in their greed, lust, vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope--that we follow them with fierce attention. This is Proulx's most ambitious novel ever, and her master work"--… (more)

Media reviews

Een echte dikke pil is de historische roman Schorshuiden, geschreven door de bekende schrijfster Annie Proulx. Een werkelijk prachtig geconstrueerde roman over de kolonisatie van Amerika en over de houtbouw. Beide niet echt onderwerpen die mijn hart meteen doen zingen, maar wat heeft Annie Proulx
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er boeiend over geschreven! Een rakend en boeiend verhaal van generaties schorshuiden dat maar liefst 320 jaar beslaat (1693 – 2013)…lees verder >
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User reviews

LibraryThing member msf59
“...the newcomers did not care to understand the strange new country beyond taking whatever turned a profit. They knew only what they knew. The forest was there for them.”

Annie Proulx had not released a novel, since The Shipping News. That was 14 years ago! Well, she delivers quite a chunkster
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here: A 700 page, multigenerational family saga, that focuses on two Frenchman and their descendants, spanning three hundred years. It mostly deals with the timber trade and begins in the deep wilderness of Canada and radiates from there and it even touches down in New Zealand and China.
This book takes some patience, but the author's passion and knowledge of the subject, keeps the reader turning pages. There is also a strong environmental theme, running throughout, as we witness the plunder of our forests and other natural resources. This epic novel may not have hit the highs it intended but it is still a good and worthy read.
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LibraryThing member aileverte
There must be something in the air -- writers, who are not genre writers, are drawn to the early pioneering days of America: Tea Obreht in her bewitching "Inland"; Hernan Diaz in "In the Distance"; and Annie Proulx in "Barkskins." I loved the title; it conjured up the themes and motifs of the book:
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from the healing powers of wild tree bark to the history of deforestation. But if I had read William T. Vollmann's review in the NYTimes first, I probably wouldn't have embarked on reading this novel... And, somewhat ashamed to admit it as I hate leaving things half-done, I abandoned it about a 100 pages in. In contrast to Obreht and Diaz who, in different ways, skillfully produce compelling narrative, irresistibly drawn digression, and moments when nothing happens in which we relish their prose and attention to natural detail, I felt that Proulx perhaps was trying too hard or was writing too quickly, but I found no pleasure in the reading. I enjoyed the occasional French interjections, although it would have been nice if they were chosen for their untranslatability: Why the double "I will return to Paris! Je vais retourner à Paris!" -- here the French sentence is just a lame reminder that the speakers are French, but since most of the dialog is based on the reader's leap of faith ("we read English but believe they are speaking French," kind of like in those old movies when Hollywood was afraid of letting characters speak their own language and made the actors put on phony accents and then pretend they couldn't understand one another), why produce the French phrase at all? Elsewhere, the foreign words do add a certain spice to the prose: seigneur, domus, underscore one character's illusions of nobility, whereas local words, like cacamos, lend a certain concreteness to the described reality. The overall effect is, however, very uneven. Some usages are anachronistic: I find it hard to believe that Monsieur Trépagny swearing in French would use today's mild "Zut!": it's like having a one-eyed pirate swear by saying "Shucks!". (Until quite recently, some of the curse words persistent in French Canadian carried the traces of the 17th century language and were properly speaking blasphemous, like sacré bleu. A quick trip to the Dictionnaire Robert Historique would have told the author that Zut, to stick with the example, is a 19th-century invention.) On the other hand, the native Mikmak Indians speak a pidgin English that again reminds me of some early Hollywood portrayals of foreigners or Native Americans somehow unable to grasp basic syntax even though their native languages might be of much greater complexity. And to top it off, these broken-English dialogs are sometimes followed by a repetitive paraphrase in modern English. I haven't read far enough, but William Vollmann points out in his review that some characters might speak pidgin English at one point only to wax poetic a few pages later.

As a reader, I care more about the quality of the prose and the purposefulness of the words used than about a story that might one day make a good movie. If you compare a paragraph by Obreht or Diaz, each sentence seems to have been properly weighted and carefully placed in the narrative, like if you were building a log cabin without nails or mortar and every piece of timber had to be cut just right. Because otherwise, you might end up shy of a 1,000 page slab of deadwood. (There is an expression in French, langue de bois, a wooden tongue, that describes a style of writing that is rather dry and full of artifice and, to my great disappointment, Barkskins is written in a langue de bois, rather than in a language of the forests I had envisioned.)

When the movie Barkskins comes out, I will go and see it, and probably enjoy it as much as I did Shipping News.
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LibraryThing member Kristelh
Absolutely a great book. Love this author and loved this work of historical fiction. A family saga but also a history of the forest industry. Another book with a warning of how we don’t listen to our own detriment. This book covers a time period of 1693 to the present time and is global but
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primarily looks at the Canadian/American forests.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
Barkskins is one of those sprawling sagas (the print version is 756 pages!) that perhaps sprawls a bit too much for its own good. Or at least for my taste and convenience. I borrowed the kindle version from my library, and just when I got engaged with the story of the Duquets and the Sels, it had
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to be returned; I couldn't renew it because another reader was waiting for it. So I put another hold on it and had to wait two weeks before plunging back in, and by that time, I had begun to forget who was who. (The book follows the descendants of these two families over 300 years and down several branches.) So if you plan to read this book, just be aware that it is one HUGE door-stopper, so unless you're a speed reader, you'd be better off getting your own copy or waiting until interest dies down before downloading it from your local library.

The story begins with two young men, Charles Duquet and René Sel, indentured to a Quebec timber company as cutters. In return for three years of labor, they are promised land of their own--a promise that the crafty Charles realizes will never be made good on. He runs away and eventually strikes it rich, first as an international fur trader and then as owner of a vast timber business. René sticks it out but fares less well: he is forced to wed a much older Mi'kmaw woman and dies a violent death.

The story follows Charles, his descendants, and the Sel descendants over time and continents. Charles travels to Holland, where he finds a wife, and to China, where he purveys furs and secures new varieties of wood to bring back for sale on the North American continent. His wealth relies on the unbridled flattening of the land, clearing whole forests without conscience, believing that forests of Quebec and Maine are so vast that they will never be extinguished. (So yes, one theme of the book is ecological--and it gets more heavy-handed as the story moves into the 20th century.) His descendants expand the business into New Zealand and begin to consider the South American rain forest, by this time one of the last true forests remaining on earth. The Sels, on the other hand, suffer from a lack of identity: part white and part Mi'kmaw, they find they don't fit well into either community. The young drift back to the Mi'kmaw (who are becoming fewer in number as they are starved, infected, or outright murdered by whites taking over their land) and into relative poverty. Along the way, the two families intertwine, both in events and in blood, and add a third line, the German Breitsprechers.

With so many characters and over so many years, I found it difficult at times to remember who everyone was and how they were connected. One positive aspect is the strong female characters: Mary, René's Mi'kmaw wife, a noted healer; Beatrix, one of the first to unite the two families by marriage; Lavinia, who takes over the lumber business with a ruthlessness worthy of Charles Duquet himself; and Sapranisia Sel, a PhD conservationist determined to save the healing Mi'kmaw plants and to reforest the land before it is too late.

As stated above, the novel's main theme, in addition to the fates of two families, is the effect of the rapacious stripping of the North American forests, first in the northwest, then westward into Michigan and beyond. While it is an issue that concerns me, it becomes overly didactic in the last sections of the book as several young Sels and one particular Breitsprecher become dedicated conservationists. There are a lot of technical/scientific details that I found dull and digressive, and it seemed rather a shame that an intriguing family saga evolved into a bully pulpit for forest conservation.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
This long saga of two families and of the forest they conquer is historical fiction at its best. In the 1600's, two indentured servants arrive in New France to work clearing the woods. Charles Duquet escapes from the harsh master. Rene Sel remains. This fascinating and well-researched novel,
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follows the two families: the Sels, and the Dukes (Charles found it advantageous to Americanize the family name). Their paths couldn't be more different yet are always intertwined.

Rene Sel marries a native woman and his offspring must straddle the white man's world and that of the Indian. Charles does whatever it takes to find wealth. Charles' ambition takes him around the world, but it is lumber that provides the way to riches. He marries a French wife but also adopts three orphan sons in order to have descendents. The story alternates between the descendents of the Dukes as they rise to great wealth, and the Sels as they labor in the dangerous forests of North America.

"Barkskins" is history, it is family drama, and it is a story of man's affect on the environment which in turn affects the living conditions of man. A beautifully written book reminiscent of James Michener. Highly recommended for anyone loving historical fiction.
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LibraryThing member ShannonRose4
A dazzlingly detailed and dramatic ecological historical fiction that is vibrant, complex, and raw. Proulx crafts a family saga around two Frenchman and their families whose struggle for survival reflects what happens to the land they work in attempt to gain freedom, wealth, and a piece of land;
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all while believing that the forest and the resources that surround them are infinite. A stunning, fierce tale of the past that is that is also a look into the future.
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LibraryThing member ozzer
This is a huge multigenerational saga that follows two North American families over 300 years. Despite employing a complex series of plots and dozens of characters, Proulx never loses sight of her two unifying themes. 1) Unfettered exploitation of America’s natural resources, wrongly presumed to
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be infinite, made a few people extremely wealthy but the environmental costs, borne by everyone else, were enormous. 2) Native peoples were marginalized and exploited by Westerners.

The two dynasties symbolize Proulx’s themes. The Duquet (Duke) line is filled with greedy corporatists. For the Dukes, just about everything serves profit. They demonstrate little regard for maintaining the resource they exploit. In their view, trees are infinite. This seems strange considering that the Dukes continually explore the world for more trees to feed their lumber business. This willful blindness to the damage they are causing is reminiscent of the global warming denial that is prevalent in the energy industry today. One member of the family summarizes their colossal level of denial as follows: “My life has ever been dedicated to the removal of the forest for the good of men.”

The Sel family is mixed Native and White. Society progressively forces them to the margins and they struggle to maintain their culture. They stand in stark contrast to the Dukes primarily because they believe in living harmoniously with nature. As the consummate woodsmen, the Sel men are exploited by the lumber industry for their skill sets and thus carry some blame for environmental degradation.

Keeping track of all of the plot lines and characters in this book is a little overwhelming. Because of its episodic structure, the narrative often loses momentum and lacks big suspenseful moments. Instead Proulx’s plot alternates between the two families, telling many smaller but linked stories. Yet these stories do not lack for drama. The characters are vividly drawn and often nuanced. Some are introduced and rapidly dismissed, while others are more developed and thus become more memorable. The two forebears, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, are prominent. Other noteworthy characters include Rene’s great, great grandson, Jinot; Livinia Duke—consummate business person; Kuntaw Sel and his wife, Beatrix, who represent a nexus between Native and Western cultures.

In spite of its immense scope and ambition, the novel coheres well around its ecological and racial themes. Proulx achieves this with consummate storytelling and character development. One may quibble about some of the diversions and blind alleys she explores with her stories and the introduction of so many minor characters, which only get a few pages. The ending, meant to be hopeful, seems rushed. But overall it is an engaging read. It might have been more enjoyable with some judicious editing (4-500 pages would have been better than 700).
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LibraryThing member ShannonRose4
A dazzlingly detailed and dramatic ecological historical fiction that is vibrant, complex, and raw. Proulx crafts a family saga around two Frenchman and their families whose struggle for survival reflects what happens to the land they work in attempt to gain freedom, wealth, and a piece of land;
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all while believing that the forest and the resources that surround them are infinite. A stunning, fierce tale of the past that is that is also a look into the future.
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LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
I had vowed never again to read Proulx because she's so depressing. The trick to reading her is never to expect anything good to happen to anyone, so if someone actually manages to scrape a small particle of joy from life you won't be disappointed when it's snatched away. This time Mother Earth
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even has to suffer, since the book is about generations of a logging family. It's 700 pages long but worth the investment.
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LibraryThing member JBD1
One of those great big sprawling family epics that are a delight to dig into and lose oneself in for a while. A fine read.
LibraryThing member bodachliath
What an extraordinary book. It encompasses the history of the major North American forests from the 17th century to the present day, and combines this with two loosely connected family stories. This ought to be too complex and ambitious to work, but for me it got more compulsive the more I read.

At
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the start of the book we meet two poor Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, who are contracted to work for a settler from a French aristocratic family in a forest in New France. Duquet runs away while Sel remains loyal, and is persuaded to marry a Mi'kmaw Indian woman who has been contracted as a cook. Duquet is an ambitious wheeler dealer who starts a business empire which concentrates on logging, while Sel's family lead a marginal existence with the vestiges of the Mi'kmaw. Both families are followed all the way to the present day, and Proulx exposes the way in which the forestry industry destroyed most of America's primeval forests and most of the Indian tribes' homelands and sources of food. The book is full of memorable characters (Lavinia, the heiress to the Duquet empire in particular), but as in Proulx's earlier novel Accordion Crimes, most of their lives come to premature ends.

For such a long book, this is surprisingly enjoyable, in fact it is among the best new American novels I have read in the last few years.
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LibraryThing member janerawoof
Sprawling novel of two indentured servants of a Frenchman in "New France" in the 16th century and the generations of descendants spawned from these two men up until nearly present-day [2013], taking us all over the world. Main theme of the book is forests and logging, how the forests are denuded
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through greed, then finally forest management and replanting take hold. The two families lives are entwined -- one becomes owners of a lumber and logging company, the other, simple loggers--some of Indian descent.
There was too much small detail through the lives of these people, but I appreciated the author's later emphasis on preserving our natural resource. I wish the author had placed the family trees--complicated as they were in the FRONT of the book.
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LibraryThing member KarenHerndon
Beautifully written, great characters.
Saga over many years of two main families and their descendents.
It is such a pleasure to open the pages of a novel as well written as this. There are other, fun, novels to read but when I find one like this it is a rarity and I am thrilled.
If you've read Ken
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Follett novels and liked them, you will probably like this book too.
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LibraryThing member Lori_Eshleman
In her sprawling novel Barkskins, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Annie Proulx tells the story of the destruction of the great forests of North America and beyond, from the late 17th century to the present. The novel follows the descendants of two Frenchmen, Charles Duquet and René Sel, who
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immigrate to Canada to become woodcutters (barkskins) in the 1690’s. Duquet founds a timber company with ties around the world, while Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman, whose descendants are torn between European and Indian values and life ways. In unforeseen ways, these 2 families intertwine over the years, and both entwine with the fate of the forests, from the eastern seaboard of North America to the kauri forests of New Zealand, and the Amazon jungles. Proulx writes beautifully of the mystery of nature, as in this passage: “The moon was a slice of white radish, the shadows of incomparable blackness. The shapes of trees fell sharply on the snow, of blackness so profound they seemed gashes into the underworld” (23). With a sense of voraciousness, the newcomers hew away at this woodland world, believing it to be limitless; and believing in the civilizing good of clearing the land for farms and settlements. Trees are hacked, sliced, ground, burned and floated, and the clearing moves ever on to new regions and new species. Only much later do some begin to talk about reseeding and replacing what has been lost.
Just as the trees are cut, so the human characters are cut down by an amazing array of accidents, illnesses, and catastrophes. And faster than the trees, they regenerate and give birth to the next generation. While it can be challenging to keep up with the many generations and relatives in the two families, a number of characters stand out: Charles Duquet himself (who changes his name to Duke), an ambitious and not very likeable man who is successful nevertheless. His descendant Lavinia Duke, a pioneering woman in the lumber industry, who meets her soul mate in Dieter Breitsprecher, an early proponent of reseeding and replanting. Outger Duke, a scientific enthusiast who abandons his half-Indian daughter, Beatrix, to return to Europe. Beatrix, wanting to understand her Native American roots, weds one of the Mi’kmaw Sels, and while at first they seem happy, neither finds in the other the wholeness they are looking for. A counterpoint of greed and generosity, dissatisfaction and hope runs through the novel, as many characters seem broken by their own histories and their struggles with nature. The novel ends with a new generation hoping to turn the tide of global warming. Sapatisia Sel, a descendant of both families, is aware of the coming dangers that we all face. “’A great crisis is just ahead,’ said one scientist”--in reference to the melting of the Greenland ice. “Sapatisia Sel thought he meant that they had been looking at human extinction. She wanted to cry out, ‘The forests, the trees, they can change everything!’ but her voice froze in her throat” (712).
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LibraryThing member charl08
This was very long, as I may have mentioned once or twice...
A rambling historical novel sweeping from French 18th century settlement to Eco warriors trying to understand forest history today. My favourite bits were the surreal deaths Proulx conjures up for her characters (which she apparently took
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from history). With so many people to account for, these range from the first ancestor in Canada hit on the head in the forest by unknown persons to awful accidents in the logging trade (lots of these: if I've ever considered it, I really wouldn't now). It's got a really strong message about the disaster humans have been to our woodlands: I found myself convinced rather than annoyed by her unabashed advocacy for the diverity of forests.
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LibraryThing member andsoitgoes
Historical fiction following 2 families over 300 years and the logging industry. Occasionally long winded and often had trouble keeping the linage correct. The family trees in the back helped. Interesting history of the logging industry from New France (Canada) to current times. Annie Proulx is
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always an excellent read.
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LibraryThing member SnowcatCradle
I'm not going to spend anytime trying to summarize any of the complexities of this novel. Figuring it out for yourself is a large part of why this novel is so good! If you've read any of Proulx's other works you will easily recognize her style in her marvelous passing descriptions, the twisting
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connections between characters, and the gruesome ends she tends to favor. If you haven't read any of her other works... this is a fantastic start to a Proulx binge.
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LibraryThing member sleahey
In this lengthy saga about two intersecting families, Proulx traces the lives and descendants of two immigrants to New France in the 17th century. Relationships and greed are the dominant themes as the families move down through the centuries, against the backdrop of the forests of northeast
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America which seem endless at first, and then all too limited. I found this novel to be too long on the one hand, but frustrating for moving from one generation to the next without enough closure of each. Perhaps dividing it into two or three novels would have had more appeal.
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LibraryThing member librarian1204
Barkskins is the very best of historical fiction. Moving from Canada's eastern shore into North America , South America , Europe and Australia and New Zealand, this book details the Primordial forests and what became of them as men and civilization encroached and destroyed with no thought that the
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supply would ever cease. Interwoven and naturally entwined is the story of the indigenous people of Canada .
Two men arrive in New France in 1693. They come as indentured servants, to a place completely alien to them. The will soon go in different directions. Their story and that of their ancestors will provide the framework for the changes to the world, people and the environment that the next 400 years will bring.
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LibraryThing member glitrbug
One of the very few books I didn't bother to finish.
LibraryThing member KayHarker
Despite forewarning of heavy going,I found this an easy,entertaining read. Not so full of angst as her short stories and very like James Michener/ConradRichter. The ending is a bit sappy. She should lose the current generation . I expect most of us baby boomers feel like that. BAD AMERICANS for
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ravaging your natural resources and you are still at it.!
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LibraryThing member Doondeck
Proulx has such a welcoming writing style. Her characters come immediately to life. This novel is a sad story of loss: loss of the forest, loss of identity but not loss of some hope. I was struck at how quickly death comes to both the trees and the characters.
LibraryThing member gypsysmom
I listened to this book and perhaps that was not the best choice. I presume the printed version would have included a family tree which would have been helpful. This is a multi-generational family saga about the descendents of two indentured French servants who come to the New World in 1693. Their
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many children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren etc. have stories to tell but some times I forgot who was a child of whom or which generation a certain person belonged to. A family tree would have helped a lot.

Charles Duquet and Rene Sel came to New France from Paris as indentured servants. They went to work for a man who was clearing land for a farm and so learned the craft of logging. Their stories diverged almost immediately. Charles Duquet ran away and got work in the fur trade eventually amassing quite a fortune. Rene Sel stayed with the master and eventually married his Micmac country wife, starting a family of mixed Indian and European heritage. The Sels stayed true to their aboriginal roots and barely eked out an existence. Charles Duquet started up a timber business in Maine after marrying a rich Dutch heiress and Anglicizing his name to Duke. His children grow the Duke and Sons family business by clear-cutting New England forests and expanding to other states. The daughter of one of the sons marries a Sel descendent, thus bringing the two families back together. The Sels are never acknowledged as descendants of Charles Duquet although their claim to his estate is as valid (or possibly more valid) than the children with the Duke name. As years of timber cutting take their toll on the environment some of the descendants on both sides start to have second thoughts about the practice. Is it too late to undo the damage done?

This book may be a little too preachy for some but Proulx obviously feels strongly about the damage to the environment. Her condemnation of the timber industry is wrapped up in a fascinating 300 year history of the New World and peopled with some very interesting characters. I would recommend this book but probably you should read it, not listen to it.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
Barkskins by Annie Proulx begins with the story of two broke Frenchmen , Rene Sel and Charles Duquet who come to Canada in the late 1600's as indentured servants, working for three years to earn their piece of land. Proulx then proceeds to track these two families for hundreds of years, while at
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the same time providing the reader with a rich background on the logging industry and the fall of the native Mi'kmaw tribe. This is an ambitious project and takes some dedication for the reader to track out the expanse of characters. Family trees for each of the characters help to some degree, but I would almost recommend to others to not worry so much about connecting them all, just let the story flow. Certain characters will stand out as the tale unfolds. In structure, this reminded me of a Michener novel where the characters are used to provide context for the historical events and to provide insight into the evolution of an area. Highly recommend to a dedicated reader. I admire the author's writing and learned quite a bit reading this wonderful novel.
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LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
Barkskins.
Two men get off a ship from France in 1693, somewhere on the St. Lawrence in New France and begin their lives as indentured servants to a Monsieur Trepagny. One is Charles Duquet and the other is Rene Sel. Barkskins is the story of how these two men weathered their early lives in a cruel
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wilderness and then how successful their progeny became over the next three centuries.
Duquet realizes early on that the life of a lumberjack is not for him but life as a timber baron and entrepreneur has a lot more appeal. Sel adapts to his environment and circumstances and settles into a life as a Barkskin, husband and father. He marries an aboriginal woman Mari and their descendants make up half of the story.
Duquet uses his wits to establish a trading company with headquarters in Europe and China and determines that the vast forests of North America are meant to be pillaged for his benefit. There is never any thought given to the concept that the forests might be a finite resource, that forestry management would assure its sustainability and that the wildlife and native peoples who occupy these lands have a right to be there. The Sels regard the forests as a source of employment but also as a resource to be managed for its bounty of shelter, food and traditional medicines. Duke and company becomes one of the largest forest product industries in the world.
The Sel family does not fare as well. Theirs is a life of working for the lumber barons who have little regard for the safety, security or destiny of their employees. They are regarded as expendable and many are killed by falling timbers, drownings in log jams of from infected wounds. The Mik mah in Nova Scotia are driven off the land by British soldiers and then by settlers who regard them as vermin with no right to property.

This is a long and interesting book. I really enjoyed most of the characters but had trouble keeping track of them. I found the genealogy at the back very helpful. The characters are well developed, the stories of individuals are compelling. However, the last chapters are not as satisfactory and some threads were left dangling. The insertion of Felix and Jeanne at the end made me wonder if they were a source of hope or the end of a dynasty. Worth reading.
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