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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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By W Perry Hall on 06-30-16
Awe-Inspiring, Far-Reaching Epic
An Awe-Inspiring, Far-Reaching Epic of the Descendants of 2 French Settlers in 1681 in New France (in an area now in Nova Scotia) and Their Destinies Over the Next 330 Years
I was thoroughly enthralled by this sweeping epic covering nearly 330 years. Although it's 736 pages, there's no one protagonist or any character that is fully developed. In fact, I believe it's difficult, if not impossible, to write an three-century epic like this that is very compelling or moving in the usual sense of literary fiction. That is to say, this is an epic that does not go back to one original narrator's storyline but instead travels straight through 320 years from 1681 to 2012 (no backward and forward except for explanation's sake) and thus does not lend itself to the reader's personal attachment to a character or a love affair, or to a development of either in the way that has become the custom for today's readers. Perhaps the only sure way to have such an attachment is if the author develops these ingredients, adding another 500-700 pages, in which case most won't read it. In any case, Proulx's obvious intent was to tell a story that shows her necessary truth about the land, the intermixing of families, and the biblical battle always present, here greed versus good (the former winning much more over the centuries than the latter).
I certainly appreciated the change from the typical literary structures, which tend to wear me out upon much accumulation, such as when it takes 30 pages to ponder a madeleine cake.
I loved seeing how much families change over time, how they blended, nearly ended, how one member of a generation can have a dramatic impact on the next gen but each member of a generation can be pegged into one of 2 general camps favoring 1) love of money and accumulation of wealth for the familly in the rich, and, in the poor, simply survival above all else, versus 2) love of others including future generations and, for the Indians, saving of their traditional ways, the land of their ancestors and the spirit of the land that they have revered and befriended.
I was dumbstruck by the destruction of the forests, their role in our environment and future, and the complete apathy of nearly all humans toward anything to do with the environment, either ignoring the current problems on the thought that it's all a myth, it's not my problem it will be their problem, or they are incapable of conceiving that it will one day be a huge problem for Earth.
I would definitely read this novel again. I gained a better appreciation for the outdoors, wildlife, forests and trees from reading this novel, as well as a somber realization of how so many people died over the past 300 years as a result of human greed, the billions made in the pillage and the plunder of forests in the United States, Canada, as well as in New Zealand, where a good 40-page chunk of the book was set.
Proulx is a great writer. This is the first book of hers I've read. I'd definitely recommend this for a worthwhile change of scenery in your summer reading.
In fact, I've talked myself into giving this 5 stars. 4.5 stars, realizing the above-stated negatives and positives of a 736 page book covering 320 years. Did Ms. Proulx accomplish what she set out to write and did it affect me? Absolutely yes on both counts. If I gave this 4, it would be due to the inability to fully develop characters/relationships that results from the ambitious scope of the book. Why can't a writer focus on the story more than any particular character? Who says? She did an excellent job in creating this realistic world over so many deaths and births, marriages, abandonments, murders, capsizes, betrayals, hope and hopelessness.
It deserves 5 stars.
32 of 35 people found this review helpful
By RIchard Lombard on 09-23-16
The book is very long and detailed with so many characters to follow that you only get a brief impression of each one. The material feels a little dry at times, almost like a beautifully written history textbook. I did enjoy it and kept coming back to it for the beauty of the language and the historical perspective it gave me. So many small details of everyday life in America.
6 of 6 people found this review helpful