Barkskins, by Annie Proulx: Book Review

“All must pay the debt of nature.”

Annie Proulx’s work up to now has been many things, some of them seemingly contradictory: terse, blunt, sharp, distant, poignant, violent, humane, and more. With Barkskins she claims an entirely new term for her collection: sprawling.

Clocking in at more than 700 pages, Barkskins begins with the stories of René Sel and Charles Duquet, Frenchmen who arrive in New France (or Canada, as we know it today) as indentured servants in 1693. René Sel is a strong and able woodsman who adapts quickly to his new life while scrawny and sickly Charles Duquet has a significantly tougher time. Just when you begin to suspect Duquet might not be long for this world he escapes from servitude and strikes out on his own, driven not only by hatred of his seigneur but by his own ambition to succeed: “He wanted great and permanent wealth, wealth for a hundred years. He wanted a fortune to pass on to his sons. He wanted his name on buildings… to establish a family name. The name Duquet would change from a curse to an honor.”

Interestingly, he will build an empire for his family, and his name will be on buildings for generations to come, but only after he changes his last name to Duke. For Charles Duquet is nothing if not fluid, adapting himself to whatever situation will bring him the greatest reward. He knows that once he has positioned his family for success they will eventually be in a greater position to make their own decisions and force their own agenda.

René Sel is also fluid, but in a markedly different way: “Again he felt himself caught in the sweeping current of events he was powerless to escape. What could he do against the commands of more important men?” This sensation is one he will pass on to his children: “Were not René Sel’s children and grandchildren as he had been, like leaves that fall on moving water, to be carried where the stream takes them?” And so we have the story of two men who shall be entangled for generations to come: one who feels powerless to stop the flow of history as it comes at him, the other madly fighting the current in an attempt to shape it to his own advantage.

The genius of Annie Proulx is the way she understands that life is tricky. It doesn’t always work out the way you expect it to, and both time and nature have a funny way of confounding the best laid plans. Children who are handed every advantage in life often don’t appreciate where it came from, and Charles Duquet is forgotten for generations (even the Duke name is replaced through marriage by the 1900s, though it remains in the business with a hyphen). But the impoverished descendants of René Sel all know of the Frenchmen who arrived in New France and began their line.

In keeping with Proulx’s grasp of the ebb, flow, and frequent cruelty of time, there are births, deaths, marriages, divorces, sudden disasters, betrayals, economic collapses–all perfectly in step with the way the world actually works. Deaths have a tendency to come suddenly and are often gruesome. From 1693 to 2013 the families of Charles Duquet and René Sel don’t follow a false narrative constructed for the reader so much as they follow the natural flow of history and life. The business that is Charles Duquet’s legacy doesn’t grow into a monolith, it faces difficulties as the fledgling United States endures fires, wars, disasters, and more–you know, all the things we know as history.

And that’s one of my greatest criticisms of historical fiction: writers have this wild tendency to imbue their characters with an unnatural prescience for how things will turn out. The protagonists also tend to have unnaturally modern attitudes toward the world while the antagonists become almost like cartoons for old-world perspectives. And the writer unnaturally bends and contorts the narrative not only to place the characters at virtually every key event that takes place in that time period but to have historical figures appear and interact with them. Not so in Barkskins. Characters, Charles Duquet in particular, take great care thinking about how tensions between colonists and rival powers France and England will play out, but the American Revolution itself is barely even a footnote–it happens between chapters. There are passing references to Benjamin Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, but no presidents or Founding Fathers make an appearance. Instead, Proulx focuses on the events that her characters would have been preoccupied with. Identifying the real historical events and figures from the fictional became something of a game for me–that’s how seamlessly Proulx has blended her characters into the world they inhabit.

That isn’t to say that Barkskins is completely free of contrivance. Because Proulx has selected the desolation of the world’s forests (and, ultimately, the world’s environment in total) as her theme, each generation must call back to that idea. The generations of Charles Duquet’s family manage this feat fairly subtly, but that’s because the family of René Sel must carry the lion’s share of the thematic burden (primarily because René Sel marries a Native American woman). As such, the Sel chapters have a tendency to drag and become repetitive. Every section with the Sel family essentially presents the same idea: although Native American ideas about land usage were seen as crude and savage, they were far superior in terms of land preservation; the growth of the United States wiped out Native American culture and ideology; and each generation of Sels has an innate need to visit their ancestral home to seek out their people at some point in their lives, even though their home and their people become progressively lost over time. This connection to their people and their past is in stark contrast to the Dukes, who feel precious little connection to people or places (although things, like a large pine table, have a way of becoming important to them).

This created an odd pattern of reading for me: I dragged through the Sel chapters, then raced through the Duquet/Duke chapters. The Duquet chapters felt fresh and invigorating while the Sels felt like they were tediously trying to make the same point over and over again. Proulx takes her time teasing out details about each generation but takes such great care for character and setting that even though the Sel chapters drag you never really fault her for the page count. Then, oddly, once she reaches 1900 Proulx begins a sprint for the finish line. It might have been interesting to see a slower approach to the modern state of logging, but instead she rushes to 2013 so quickly all she can really do is grab a sledgehammer to pound in her final thoughts on the damage man has done to the environment–and she has to forget the Dukes completely in the process, since the Sels have always been the embodiment of her theme anyway. Perhaps there was no way to satisfyingly end Barkskins without being at least a little preachy, but it’s disappointing that it feels so rushed and forced after an otherwise careful novel.

In the end, I confess I wanted to like Barkskins more than I actually did. I would still make the case that Proulx is one of the great masters writing today. Her savage wit is so dry one could almost breeze right by some of her most hilarious turns or phrase without realizing how gutting they are. But there’s no denying she kind of boxes herself into a corner and one plotline definitely drags under the weight of the burdensome thematic material it must carry.

Grade: B

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.”    — Hermann Hesse

Barkskins Annie Proulx


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