Barkskins

  • by Annie Proulx
  • Narrated by Robert Petkoff
  • 26 hrs and 0 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

From Annie Proulx - the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain - comes her masterpiece, 10 years in the writing: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about taming the wilderness, set over two centuries.
In the late 18th century, Rene Sel, an illiterate woodsman, makes his way from Northern France to New France to seek a living. Bound to a feudal lord, a seigneur, for three years in exchange for land, he suffers extraordinary hardship, always in awe of the forest he is charged with cleaning. Rene marries an Indian healer with children already, and they have more, mixing the blood of two cultures. Proulx tells the stories of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of two lineages, the Sels and the Duquets, as well as the descendants of their allies and foes, as they travel back to Europe, to China, to New England, always in quest of a livelihood or fleeing stunningly brutal conditions - accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, the revenge of rivals.
Proulx's inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid - in their greed, their lust, their vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope - that we follow them with fierce attention. Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable American writers of our time, and Barkskins is her Moby Dick.

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The Forest for the Trees

Barkskins is a multi-generational saga, but the main character of the story is the forest—the ancient forests that covered the world and most of North America before the settlers arrived and decided they must conquer the forest as well as the native Indians who had been living in peaceful harmony with the ancient trees before the arrival of the colonizers. The story begins with two French settlers who have signed on as indentured servants to work in New France. They are the originators of two 'dynasties': the Sels, and the Dukes. The Dukes are descendent from Charles Duquet, who literally escapes from his obligations into the woods, and through years of travel and trading, and an eventual marriage to a wealthy Dutch woman, establishes a foresting company that will operate over several generations and be partly responsible for the clear-cutting and deforestation of North America and New Zealand, from the 17th through the 21st century. The Sels are descendants from René Sel, who is forced into a marriage with a native Micmac woman. He fathers mixed-heritage children, who are all faced with the problems plaguing the native Indians as the settlers methodically took away their lands and their rights, as they strive to keep their Micmac origins alive despite the overwhelming challenges and persecution they face.

By necessity, some of the characters weren't as fully developed as others, and I found the huge cast of characters quite daunting, though there is a helpful family tree provided as a pdf chart with the audiobook. I had to refer to this often, but eventually it ceased to be an issue as a handful of characters were fully developed and came to the fore, carrying the bulk of the story with them. Proulx clearly wanted to show how the white Colonialists, motivated by greed and hubris, systematically destroyed forest land which they assumed was endless and would continue to regenerate itself. Of course we now know otherwise and are suffering the consequences of events which Proulx makes clear originated from the very beginning of the discovery of the Americas by the Europeans.

I very much wanted to love this story, but found it somewhat overwhelming at times, and the environmental message, while it is one I think is important to keep in mind, seemed overbearing at times, if not always explicitly stated. The word 'Barkskins' is an invention by Proulx, who says in an NPR interview that she's not entirely sure where the word originated, admitting she might have coined it herself, and that (her novel) "was Barkskins before even the first word was written." (http://www.npr.org/2016/06/10/481449357/annie-proulx-s-bloody-new-novel-barkskins-is-about-more-than-deforestation)

The narrator handled the various accents very well, and his overall performance is definitely recommended.
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- Ilana "Audiobooks have literally changed my life. I now actually ENJOY doing mindless chores because they give me plenty of listening time!"

God bless the far-sighted environmentalist


If there has been any wonder as to what Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx has been up to for the 14 yrs. since her last novel, it's now clear...researching our forests. With this latest novel, Barkskins, Proulx begins in the 17th century forests of Canada with two Frenchmen, indentured servants, awestruck by the vast forested wilderness they see upon stepping onto this North American continent: the brawny woodsman René Sel, and Charles Duquet, “a weakling from the Paris slums.” Thus begins the eradication of the towering forests and its native inhabitants, the (Mi'kmaw). At 700 pages, this door stop of a book spans three centuries that trace the descendants of the two Frenchmen, and the consequences of their chosen paths in this new world.

Through the Revolutionary War, The Civil War, the expansion of an industrialized nation, immigration, and eventually the decline of the Mi’Kmaq Indian culture, greed flows through the generations, expanding across oceans in the search for more lumber. While immigrants clear unfathomable acreage of timber to build homesteads and plant corn, the timber barons begin importing newly found wood from the forests in China and New Zealand, expanding their empires without a thought to re-forestation. The respect and the dependence the Mi’Kmaq have for the nature of the forests is an unheeded warning for the loggers. As the forests are depleted the Mi’Kmaq also fall to illness and lassitude. Only a far-sighted visionary with a love for the trees and nature realizes the need to begin researching reforestation.

The profusion of characters that inhabit these 300 years are many, but are meaningful and memorable participants in creating the eventful history laid out so colorfully by the author. The stories they contribute become the family legends; ancestoral bonds; the shoulders that future characters will stand upon. Duke's (Duquet) expensive wig purchased in Europe and proudly worn in spite of it's weight, is years later flung from the attic's stash of historical treasures by a band of exploring children mistaking it for some creature. I could picture this trip through history and time, see the relevance and the impact of inventions, from the radial saw to pre-fab homes -- Proulx details centuries of logging, and the modernization of the country on every level. It is an amazing compendium of the development of our nation.

It is almost unfair to give such an accomplishment 4*'s, (any writer that can keep me reading about logging for 26 hours really deserves 5*'s) but it moves through time with little significance given to the events apart from logging. It's like a line chart with a straight Y axis moving through incredible spikes that I'd like to have seen reflected in the story -- but then that would be more pages...more trees. Keeping your head straight ahead, eyes on the page, while the tea is tossed into the harbor, the colonists battle the British, or slavery is abolished, and so on -- it's difficult even for a tree-hugger to stay focused on hours of logging and not to do some mind-wandering. I did best devoting shorter periods of time to this; it's easy to pick up and still be in the story. Significant, interesting read. I can see Ken Burns developing this into one of his series; recommend for lovers of history, good stories, distinct characters, and strong narratives.





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- Mel

Book Details

  • Release Date: 06-14-2016
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio