- A generational saga ~ the four hundred years’ narrative of two families, one First Nations from what the area known today as Quebec and the Maritimes, and one European, specifically French, eventually reaching Chicago and western North America;
- The story of the destruction of the North American forests, a devastating attack which takes entrepreneurs to China and spreads as far as New Zealand;
- The harrowing details of the devastation which white settlers, trappers, missionaries, and purveyors of commerce visited upon those whose fished and hunted and understood as sacred the lands of North America, and the beginnings of the conservation movement, wholly inadequate to address the losses which will take a millennium from which to recover;
- A female anti-heroine, oddly compelling in her single-minded pursuit of trees and money:
Barkskins is a riveting, albeit loooong novel. At one point, unable to keep track of the multitude of characters and their relationships (unfortunately, the illuminating family trees are located in the back of the book, and I did not discover them until I was finished), I put it aside, but several days later found myself drawn back, and finished every page.
North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth century was a brutal place, one in which violence was common and in which people lived and worked in the midst of constant danger. Annie Proulx does not mince details; pages and scenes in Barkskins require a strong stomach.
It was also a place of a seemingly endless supply of natural resources, and the greed carelessness with which the Europeans destroyed them ~ birds, mammals, waters, forests ~ is well known, but documented with harrowing precision in this novel. The term “barkskins” refers to the woodsmen who logged and transformed the forest into ships, houses, and furniture, swiftly and remorselessly.)
It’s a difficult read, made more so by the speed with which some of the characters are dismissed within a short space of having been introduced. (And the ironic twist by which the families, unknown to themselves, become re-connected in the twentieth century, is rendered nearly invisible, and those back pages are required to clarify it.) But it’s also a fascinating read, in its attention to period detail and its sweep across human emotion and entanglement.
I did not choose this book with my upcoming trip to Gaspésie in mind; I chose it because I admire and enjoy Annie Proulx’s writing. However, as I paused every few pages to google yet another reference ~ tribes, families, places, historical events ~ I discovered that much of it is set in eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and Maine, and so it took on added meaning for me. The friend with whom I am travelling and I had been focused on the Gaspésie coastline for our travels, but I am now trying to ensure that we at least dip into the interior of the peninsula, so that we can see something of the forests that once dominated this continent.
“You do not understand the saying ‘tian ren he yi.’ It refers to a state of harmony between people and nature. You do not feel this. No European does. I cannot explain it to you. It is a kind of personal philosophy for each person, yet it is everything.” (Hong merchant Wiqua to French trader Charles Duquet in Barkskins.)