Annie Proulx’s latest novel is large and long, but entirely riveting–if you read it, you’ll be amazed at how rapidly it zooms by.  It may be the essentialist novel about the environment, and it succeeds on virtually every level.  Her short story, “Brokeback Mountain”, was made into a movie that brought her much fame; her fiction is driven by great passion often about large events, as is true in the current novel, The Barkskins.

Barkskins are basically men who worked cutting down trees, and/or getting them down rivers to ports for sale worldwide.  The Native American family, The Sels, whom Proulx introduces early on, is particularly skilled with working on water, so much a part of their own culture before the arrival of white Europeans on the North American continent. By using two families over a number of generations, Proulx has created a phenomenal look at the early plunder of Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, and Maine and New Hampshire (those borders were very fluid before The American Revolution).  Two families dominate: the Dukes, originally Duquet (a typical American phenomenon was indeed the name change; people wanted to sound more of Anglo descent), and the Sels, whose origins on this continent are unknown.  One of the novel’s greatest strengths is the descriptions of how the Indian tribe in the novel lived and worked (the two weren’t really separate) on the land; the belief that rivers and trees and everything in nature is a living thing with spirits made these Indians hypersensitive to the land, which they don’t worship, but which they choose to live with almost as friends. They have no understanding of “owning” land, a concept which wholly eludes them, and which white men take complete advantage of.   Proulx does seem to believe that the white European male mind is indeed predatory, and she may well be right, but when new, and very greedy, whites come to America, they will plunder, tear down all the trees that they can, and “cultivate” the land, a concept unknown to Indians, who are simply considered “barbaric” because they aren’t white Americans. By personalizing these kinds of historical facts through the trope of the family saga, Proulx personalizes large abstract historical forces into and through the lives of real people.  Some intermarriage between white settlers and Indians was inevitable and not uncommon, mirroring the fluidity of early American frontier life, but in the logging camps, there’s almost a complete separation between natives and new Americans, and suspicion reigns between/amongst the two.  And it’s amazing to read about the ease with which Native families will integrate people from other families into their own; Proulx is exceptional in her descriptions of life amongst Native Americans, and how they begin to understand that they are being literally wiped out.  The casual cruelty of so many whites is brilliantly rendered: they are truly incapable of seeing the Natives as people (which reminds us of other such examples, as The Nazis in Germany were able to persuade others that Jews were less than human, and said trope may well have an unwanted place in America of today, where I believe that many whites still see people of African descent as less than human. And, indeed, Proulx must have these other examples in mind as she wrote this superb novel.

As The Duke family’s holdings in land and trees begins to dominate the American continental West through Michigan and Ohio (and eventually to The West Coast), they seem quite capable of believing that the trees are infinite in number, and are unconcerned with how they will be replaced (the Duke family will go as far as New Zealand to find trees, too, which they also ruin and wreck).  We also watch as the Dukes become rich and respectable, with formidable houses in Boston; their upward social mobility is very much evident in the novel. Although at times the sheer number of descendants of the Dukes and Sels is confusing, as each generation has children and the like, the basic narrative threads never get lost, and that’s a real tribute to the author.  We do wonder if these two families, who are intermarried long in the past, will ever discover one another; they will, near the end, in an oblique manner, when one of the Duke descendants wants to start a nursery, which will need some of the descendants of the Sels to work for, but the concept of renewal and hope for the environment is left with a tiny group of oddball malcontents, and the Indians are nearly decimated anyway. Proulx does not shy away from the rampaging greed of these early Americans, and that’s much to her credit.  And her sensitivity to the Native tribe(s) is immense, and you’ll learn a heap about how early Indians lived with/off the land, in ways so alien to most Americans even now.

The Barkskins is and isn’t a polemic novel; you can read it that way, or not, or partly, as you see fit. But by creating these two families, the history of America’s lumber businesses is made very real; it’s almost a plot with a plot, but it’s the main structuring device of the novel.   You’ll also learn a heap about trees and what kinds of medicinal properties they have; for one like me who’s not a science person, I learned an immense amount about the glories of the North American continent and its rivers and trees in particular.  Proulx also writes with an obvious ease; her main goal is to keep the narrative flow going, which she does with great success, and though the novel runs to 750 pages, I never once was remotely bored.  I’m not certain how well this novel is doing in sales and the like, but I recommend it wholeheartedly and hope you don’t get turned away because of its length.  The Barkskins may well be the sleeper novel of the new season, and it’s absolutely worth your time to read.

–Daniel Brown


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