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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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.
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.