"Barkskins opens 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."--
Annie Proulx had not released a novel, since The Shipping News. That was 14 years ago! Well, she delivers quite a chunkster 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
I picked this up on impulse, having not seen any reviews, or even being aware that it had been published. It was in a shop window, and I'd not read any Proulx for some time.
I was surprised at its size - over 700 pages. Proulx is not someone I associate with epic novels. Judging by this effort they are not her forte. I confess I gave up somewhere probably a couple of hundred pages in.
A promising premise, the novel starts with two indentured Frenchmen of markedly different temperaments arriving up river from Trois-Rivieres in 1693, and being taken by their new master, M. Trepagny, deep into the forest to clear land for him. The men are opposites. Rene Sel is fit, honest, hard-working, a skilled forester come from chopping trees in the Moravian highlands and loath to become an indoor servant. His surname identifies him as belonging to the 'salt of the earth'. The other man, Charles Duquet, is "a scrawny engagé from the ship, a weakling from the Paris slums who during the voyage often folded up in a corner like a broken stick". Duquet has a whinging treble voice and is scarcely larger than a child. He also has a mouth full of abscessed teeth. Unsurprising the healthy Rene is an inherently good man, albeit unsophisticated, who serves out his time and meets a sticky end. The unhealthy, repulsive, but clever, Duquet runs away, surviving against extraordinary odds to become a canny but unpleasant merchant and international exploiter of natural resources.
Rene, on order from Trepagny, married a Mi'kmaq woman, Mari, with whom Trepagny had been living until he could afford a French wife, and although involuntary, it became a loving and successful marriage. Mari was an expert in traditional medicine and schooled her children in her people's traditions. After the death of Rene and Mari, Mari's children travel to Mi'kma'ki, the wonderful homeland their mother had so often described, only to find the land and its people considerably decimated. Initially settling in an area which seems to be in what is now Nova Scotia, they variously adapt, trying to keep to traditional ways, but the men must go away in search of work, hiring themselves out as loggers, destroying the forests that have given their people their way of life, and in due course working for businesses run by Duquet.
The rest of the book will be given over to the descendants of Sel and Duquet, as all the way down to 2013 people carry on chopping down trees. But really, I didn't care.
Reading this I had in the back of my mind World's End by T Coraghessan Boyle, a really good book about the descendants of three families over probably a roughly similar time (can't lay hands on my copy), but with a good story and vivid characters. Proulx's characters never come off the page. Having just this evening come across a review, I read that Proulx had wanted this enormous book to be even longer, as her editors made her leave out something like 170 pages about logging in Indonesia.
Yes, deforestation is bad and we should all care about it, but this enormous book is not going to help. It is ironic that she has chosen to use so much paper to bring the evil of deforestation to our attention. Other people have written better family sagas, other people have written better books about the environment. I only wish I'd seen the reviews before I bought Barkskins.
And the next 700 pages trace their descendants' lives and fortunes, ups and downs, in Canada and the US and around the world.
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).
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 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.
This story charts the journey of Rene Sel and Charles Duquet from France to the colonies and their ambitions to sell American timber all over the world.
It also documents Sel and Duquet's children and grandchildren and other members of the two families in their relentless quest to sell timber and the lengths they will go to, to achieve their goal.
A timely portent of what may happen if the destruction of forests continue.
I was given a digital copy of this book by the publisher Fourth Estate via Netgalley in return for an honest unbiased review.
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 Follett novels and liked them, you will probably like this book too.