Mary Beth Writes

It took me more than a month to read Annie Proulx’s 700-page novel Barkskins.

Before I return it to the library I am going to attempt to produce a book report here. Not sure if you need to read this as much as I need to write it. When a person lives five weeks with 700 pages, they really ought to know something about where they were and why they stayed there.

I am captivated, and often horrified, by the history of what happened after Europeans immigrated to North America; especially post-Columbus up to (and sometimes including) the American Revolutionary War.  From what I have read and learned, so many people and leaders during these centuries were energetic, self-satisfied, unquestioning, inventive, religious, desperate, avaricious, faith-filled, brave - and utterly disrespectful of the natural world and of non-European people.  I guess the colonial era seems like a family reunion to me.

Barkskins starts with two rough characters.  Rene’ Sel and Charles Duquet are French immigrant indentured servants who arrive in New France (Canada and northern US along the St Lawrence River) in 1693. They are hired as grunt workers to a greedy, tough, rich guy who has been living in the woods and clearing the forest to build a farm, for years. We soon learn that Rene is plodding, faithful, and asks for very little other than to be given a task and then to be left alone to do it.  Duquet is a duplicitous, selfish, scheming survivor.

Here’s the thing. The most important character in this book is great nearly untouched primeval forest.

The two servants follow the man who will be their new boss and master into the wilderness. “They plunged into the gloomy country, a dense hardwood forest broken by stands of pine…. Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen not seen in the old country for hundreds of years, evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage…”

pines at Copper Falls, WI

Duquet will spawn a family lumber dynasty that will, over centuries, mow down forests around the earth. Rene will marry a native woman; their children will be the lumberjacks who chop the forests owned by Duquet. At one point the two families will unwittingly intermingle, but the privilege that ought to come with that marriage will not happen.

Annie Proulx is one of my favorite writers (Shipping News, short stories that include Brokeback Mountain). She is a master at pulling a reader into rough compelling lives and into gorgeous and inhospitable places.  Barkskins is not a “sweeping family saga” filled with sex, dresses, and dashing heroes. I’ve read Herman Wouk – this is not that.

 What kept me reading is Proulx’s ability to take a reader to a place and time where people are not us. She is a research-maven; she was educated to become a historian. She has been reading histories and first source materials for decades.  She doesn’t invent character and plot so much as she weaves together what she has learned into a long, fascinating, vicious story.

To be able to get to the “character” of people who lived in different centuries and different civilizations – who were trying to figure out and survive the onslaught of western European culture – this is what Annie Proulx does better than anyone else I read.

By the last 100 pages I was frustrated at the plethora of characters she was throwing at us. At the same time, I knew those people; they are the people I’ve met in my life. Some of them seemed one-dimensional to me. I read that last century fast.

But the first several hundred pages will stay in me for a long time. I went some place. I met the people who invented the culture I live in now. I saw the grueling work and witnessed shocking losses and deaths (Proulx knocks off characters in ‘authentic to the time’ ways that will astound you. Not sure I will ever get over the teenager killed as a giant tree catapults up out of a log jam and then missiles down onto the boy’s back. There are more details. I won’t terrify you with them…)

Her rich and cosseted characters seemed almost as much victims as those who truly suffered.  I kept waiting for someone, anyone, to step back far enough to see that it was worldview versus world; it was survival versus the forest. It was greed versus ignorance.

I guess it still is.

Maybe you can’t fathom giving weeks of your life to Barkskins. If you are a little interested, let me suggest this. Give yourself an hour at a bookstore or library. Find the book, find a comfy chair, and sink in and start reading. Go to the primeval wilderness. It was not any more innocent then than it is now. You will meet amazing people right away.  Mari the wise, multi-lingual, acerbic Mi’kmaq woman is awesome.

It is an amazing unraveling epic of forest and fools. We’re the fools.

_____

 

Here is another book review as well as an interview with Proulx. This writer got paid more than me…..   https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/jun/05/annie-proulx-ive-had-a-lif...

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