The cast in Annie Proulx’s new novel, Barkskins, is enormous. It rapidly grows as each chapter follows generations of fur traders, adventurers and would be entrepreneurs from the old world to the new. The family tree ( no pun intended) expands and the blood line grows to encompasses Native Americans and Native Canadians. The story landscape ranges from Europe to the Canadian Maritimes, China, New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest.
Barkskins makes a profound environmental statement as the perceived good folks along with lots of bad guys begin their devastation of the American colonial landscape long before mechanization and 19th Century greed. It is the era of wood, white pine, New England ship building ,the axe, logging, spring river runs and hard men who live harder lives in the deep woods.
“A thousand men could not cut all this in a thousand years.” But they did. ” He hated the American clear-cut despoliation, the insane waste of sound valuable wood, the destruction of the soil, the gullying and erosion, the ruin of the forest world, with no thought for the future.” A strong woman inherits a modest lumber enterprise and converts it into a family fortune by developing a mechanized deforestation machine.
The book is not just about the forests but of the devastation brought upon the native people of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Maine. It is the sad saga so often heard of American expansion, this time telling the story of the Mi’Kmaq.
“Now when the forest were gone there had never been so few Mi’Kmaq since the beginning of time, less than fifteen hundred, the remains of a people who had numbered more than one hundred thousand in the time before the white-man came.”
A fortune created by destroying the forests and an entire Indian culture. In the end a desperate search for an heir to the ill-gotten gains, and it comes full circle. Who is the family?
You may work at this read in the beginning but you will quickly be captured. Such brilliant writing.
Annie Proulx is famous for The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain.