Armchair Book Club: Barkskins

Western News books columnist Heather Allen explores the latest from Annie Proulx. Barkskins.

I waited with much anticipation for Annie Proulx’s latest book Barkskins, which was released in June. After all, she is the Pulitzer-prize and National Book Award winning author of wildly popular The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain.

What I didn’t expect was that almost two months after cracking open the book, I would still be attempting to finish it. To be fair, I usually have several books on the go. Still, at more than 700 pages, Barkskins is a dense tome.

In the late 17th century, two poor Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive on the shores of New France. They become woodcutters, or barkskins. In exchange for three years of service to a seigneur, they are to be granted their own land. Sel suffers but carries out the gruelling work for an unforgiving master, who eventually forces him to marry a Mi’kmaq woman. Duquet flees, becomes a fur trader and then sets up a timber business.

Proulx details a harsh world, where death visits often. But rather than sticking with Sel or Duquet for too long, she moves on to document the lives of their descendants for the next 300 years. The journey takes the reader around the world, to see the future effects of those who hacked down the forests on the east coast of North America.

It took Proulx fifteen years to write this book. And it shows. Proulx’s fascination, or more probably obsession, with history is palpable on the page. This historical fiction is heavy on “historical” and lighter on the “fiction.”

Once I realized I was in for something altogether different than enjoying a well-developed character like Quoyle in The Shipping News, I was able to appreciate Barkskins for what it is: a richly detailed and beautifully-written history of the North American forest industry. It leaves nothing — pestilence, accidents, attacks and cultural annihilation – out from the story.

More than a storyteller, Proulx simply is a voice for the forest. She is on a mission to make a statement about the mass destruction of the natural world, and what humans are willing to do, or to sacrifice, to profit from it.

Unsustainable resource extraction – to the detriment of locals – continues today. Just this week, three Mi’kmaq communities in the Gaspe region are asking the federal court to halt an oil export terminal in northern New Brunswick over fears of what a spill could do to their salmon fishery.

In many ways Barkskins is magnificent, and like Proulx’s other books, will stick with me. But since I prefer lighter books in the summer, I suggest placing this one on the shelf for fall. Rich in detail, it will most likely continue to occupy you well into the long nights of winter.


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