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René en Charles, twee berooide jonge Fransen, emigreren in de zeventiende eeuw naar Nieuw-Frankrijk, op zoek naar een betere toekomst. Ze beginnen hun nieuwe leven in Noord-Amerika, beiden als lijfeigenen, en kappen daar de machtige bossen. Al snel lopen hun levens uiteen. De zachtaardige René trouwt een indiaanse vrouw en gaat een arm maar gelukkig bestaan tegemoet. De nietsontziende Charles daarentegen doet alles om een fortuin te vergaren. Hij trouwt een Nederlandse en weet een groot hout- en pelsimperium op te bouwen. Terwijl hun kinderen, hun kindskinderen, en de kinderen van hun bondgenoten en vijanden hun levens leiden, worden de Noord-Amerikaanse wouden steeds verder uitgedund.

799 pages, Paperback

First published June 14, 2016

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About the author

Annie Proulx

110 books2,772 followers
Edna Annie Proulx is an American journalist and author. Her second novel, The Shipping News (1993), won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for fiction in 1994. Her short story "Brokeback Mountain" was adapted as an Academy Award, BAFTA and Golden Globe Award-winning major motion picture released in 2005. Brokeback Mountain received massive critical acclaim and went on to be nominated for a leading eight Academy Awards, winning three of them. (However, the movie did not win Best Picture, a situation with which Proulx made public her disappointment.) She won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her first novel, Postcards.

She has written most of her stories and books simply as Annie Proulx, but has also used the names E. Annie Proulx and E.A. Proulx.

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Profile Image for Will Byrnes.
1,311 reviews120k followers
May 28, 2020
...the newcomers did not care to understand the strange new country beyond taking whatever turned a profit. They knew only what they knew. The forest was there for them.
Barkskins is Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Proulx’s (the author of Brokeback Mountain and Pulitzer winner for The Shipping News) magnum opus, a wide ranging historical novel in which the central character is the land itself, more particularly the primeval forested land of (primarily) North America. Proulx plants a pod with two seeds, the arrival in New France of René Sel and Charles Duquet in 1693. They are contracted to remain with a local seigneur, in essence a feudal lord, for a limited number of years. Duquet flees the seigneur’s cruelty, and uses his considerable native intelligence, strength, guile, and ruthlessness to become a fur trader and much more. Sel suffers greatly at the hands of the lord, even being forced to marry a native woman.

From these roots, there grows an overview of more than three hundred years of history, as the Sel (towards the Native American side) and Duquet (to a logging dynasty) lines branch out in numbers and geography, are periodically pruned back by disasters both natural and political, but persist through time, like the trees some of their representatives are often so eager to fell. Proulx takes us all the way up to 2013.
For me, the chief character in the long story was the forest, the great now-lost forest(s) of the world. The characters, as interesting as they were to develop, were there to carry the story of how we have cut and destroyed the wooden world. - from The New Yorker interview
It was not solely the wooden world that was ravaged. The native peoples who lived in and near those woods were cut down no less than the trees that had helped sustain and define them.

Annie Proulx - Photo by Wiqan Ang for the Wall Street Journal

There are ten parts in the book (not noted by rings) covering diverse durations, from 10 years at the low end to 227 in the final, hurry-up part. Proulx walks us through stages in the denuding of North America’s woodlands, beginning in what is now Canada, then moving east and south to Maine, heading west to take in the Ohio Valley, then up to Michigan and touching briefly on southern and western woodlands. There are forays outside the continent as well, with looks at forestry practices in the Old World of Germany, a look-see at some of the magnificent old giants of New Zealand and a quick trip to take in the unimaginable diversity of the Amazon. She shows us how native peoples were driven off the land, pressured into accepting European ways and interbred, willingly and not, with the eastern invaders.

Proulx paints a bleak portrait of what life was like for those unlucky enough to make their living at the bottom of the logging world power structure. Death was a daily visitor, danger a constant companion, and discomfort and worse from wet, cold, fire, disease and buzzing pests offered persistent hardship. One of the lumber barons, a female head of a logging business family, demonstrates how the media was used to manipulate workers.
She urged editors to praise the manliness and toughness of shanty men, inculcating axmen with the belief that they could take extreme risks and withstand the most desperate conditions because they were heroic rugged fellows; the same sauce served settlers into the third generation, who believed they were “pioneers” and could outlast perils and adversities. Loggers and frontier settlers, she thought, would live on pride and belief in their own invulnerability instead of money.
The European loggers’ approach to their work was not based, at least at first, on pure greed. There was that, of course, but there was also a considerable shortage of actual knowledge.
“How big is this forest?” asked Duquet in his whinging treble voice. He was scarcely bigger than a child.
“It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension.”
While the book is a long-term scan of the despoilation of landscape by the ignorant and avaricious, it is not entirely charcoal and birch. We know a lot more now about the worldwide supply of woodland than it was possible to know then. This is reflected in Proulx’s characters, who consider decisions made in the light of what was known at the time. This changes, as eventually it becomes known that the woodland is not mythically eternal. But she also points out that in certain areas there was indeed knowledge available of less horrific forestry practices used in other parts of the world that was largely ignored by the North American logging industry.
Even if everyone knew it was too late, we’d still keep on. There seems to be something in the human psyche that is unable to stop and step back and repair and fix things. It’s not willing to. It’s like we can’t shift easily. There’s just something in people. It’s the fatal flaw in humanity, I think. Once we start doing something, we keep on. - from the Globe and Mail article
There is much in here about what one might call the American spirit, or more likely the entrepreneurial spirit, as there are plenty of representatives more than willing to undertake daring ventures, risking much and sometimes all in hopes of reaping a reward. But there are several sorts of enterprise on display. When a logging executive, newly arrived from Europe, sees a relative greasing the palm of a state official to ensure access to attractive parcels of forest, he remarks that the man had truly become an American. Strong women play key roles here. I was reminded in one case of Jeanne Anne McCullough from the The Son, another historical of eastern invaders and local devastation.

A Maine clearcut From the Forest Ecology Network

Proulx offers some beacons of hope (a light in the forest?) in her grim landscape. One European forester brings a notion of sustainability to the lumber business. We are thus exposed to extant theory of the era of how it might be possible to carve out a modus vivendi between humanity and nature. Not that this happens, of course, but the ideas are introduced. There are also sprigs of the family bush that find more interesting ways to think about the land than in terms of potential board feet. One dedicates his life to studying the diversity of the Amazon, another, well, several others, devote themselves to studying the complex interactions and interdependence of ecosystems.

And just as some seek to restore a sense of understanding, of sanity, to human interaction with natural resources, others feel the pull of their family, of their cultural roots, and seek those remaining stands of tribal knowledge and life.

Proulx tosses into each chapter bits about the time that allow us to place where we are, and what is happening Oh, that first came in there? Cool. And that began there, and then? She accomplishes this quite deftly, so that it does not at all come across as excess exposition. More like easily identifiable road signage that fits in nicely with its surroundings. Changes in fashion and foods mark the times as well. Part of the progression is a look at the step-wise changes in logging technology.

The downside of this book is that because it takes in such a long period, it is impossible to give enough time to any of the many wonderful characters that inhabit the space. Of course, had she attended to more of them fully, the book could easily have tripled in length. And there are certainly plenty of characters who will engage your interest and many episodes that will touch your heart, however brief the encounter. Proulx is a master of saying a lot with few words.

From the Forest Stewardship Council

There is a considerable body count here, as one might expect in a novel covering more than three centuries. Character A is dispatched so we can move on to characters B and C in the next step of social and economic development, or landscape rape, as the case may be. And they are carried off in diverse ways, some that were new to me. One unlucky fellow is tossed overboard during a cold-weather storm and is later found encased in ice. (a corpsesicle?) Infections, fires, starvation, a scalping, More than enough to fill an Edward Gorey couplet book or three (S is for Steve who got stuck in a tree, T is for Tom who was frozen at sea). A cough here or a pain there are likely, within a page or two to turn terminal. Hi, lovely to meet you. Where are you going? Oh nooooo! There is definitely a “They’ve killed Kenny” vibe that pops up with some regularity. I suspect Proulx had a bit of fun figuring out how to off so many of her tale-bearers. Not as much as Tim Dorsey, maybe, but still. Perhaps she uses Annie’s Spin-the-Death wheel. Ok, what are we gonna do to this one? Crushed by floating logs? shot by invaders? a surprise scalping? (could we call that skullduggery?) nifty house fire? forest conflagration? done in by unfriendly natives? infected cut? heart attack? contract assassination? Go ahead, give it a turn. (I think we’re gonna need a bigger wheel.) The list goes on.
these things happened to people. ... I mean, if you've got to kill off a character, you might as well do it with a bit of panache. - from the NPR interview
There are some magical scenes of sylvan idylls as native people traverse remote lands to engage in a traditional hunt. And moments of beauty dapple the tale as those open to the glory of the wild allow the wonder all about them to find its way inside. But beyond that there is nothing enchanted about these woods, although a cleric at a residential school for Indians might bear a strong thematic resemblance to the woodland resident encountered by Hansel and Gretel. People are indeed transformed by their experiences in the forest. But, while it may be a place of opportunity, it is hardly a place of refuge. There are indeed dark scenes in this book that would seem suitable for the woodsy horrorlands of the Grimms. Plenty of two-legged troll-like monsters to go around, more than happy to engage in unspeakable acts of violence and cruelty. Were Tom Bombadil to have been found by the invaders, his home would soon have been burned to the ground, and he would have been lucky to escape with all four limbs, his head on his neck, and his scalp still covering its top. And were any ents to wander in from Middle Earth they would well recognize the sort of holocaust being practiced on their cousins. The enchantment has been driven from these woods, with sharp steel edges and fire. For North American forests after the arrival of Europeans, it is winter all the time and never Christmas.

In his seminal look at how human societies have gone to ruin, Collapse, Jared Diamond identifies one of the most important elements in furthering this destruction as national deforestation. While Proulx looks primarily at forests here, she is using them to stand in for a range of short-sighted activities that are ruining our home planet. Reliance on fossil fuels, for example, overpopulation, over-fishing, pollution. That is not in the book, per se, well, not much, but it is pretty clear that this is what her intended larger picture includes.

Film rights have been bought by National Geographic and are being developed by Scott Rudin. It seems to me that the best possible cinematic outcome for this work would be as a lengthy series of The Game of Thrones sort. This would allow the story to be told without racing off to the morgue every ten pages or so to clear a path for the next set of characters. There are many wonderful personalities in this book, and a more leisurely look at their experiences would be most welcome, and well supported by the material. Fingers are crossed.

Barkskins is a triumph. It cuts a swath through a large historical spanse, offering a brilliant and engaging look at how the traditional rape-and-plunder formula for resource extraction has scarred the landscape, ruined many of its inhabitants, destroyed endemic culture, and contributed to making our planet one that is choking on its own smoke, warming to the boiling point and threatening to extinguish those who have treated it so fecklessly. In folklore the forest may be a place where people are afraid, but today, and for many centuries now it has been clear that it is the forest that must shiver at the sight of man. Many have gone into the woods, but far too few have allowed the woods to go into them. In the Anthropocene we have become the darkness we feared.

Published - June 14, 2016

Review First Posted – August 26, 2016

==========In the summer of 2019 GR reduced the allowable review size by 25%, from 20,000 to 15,000 characters. In order to accommodate the text beyond that I have moved it to the comments section directly below.

Profile Image for Zoeytron.
1,036 reviews692 followers
July 16, 2016
Grrrrrr . . . . I am throwing in the towel on Barkskins after 120 pages. I am not enjoying it, and this is not how I want to spend the next week or so of my reading time. This bottomless pile of minutiae is just too much for my old lady brain to hack through. Cutting my losses and returning it to the library for the next soul on the waiting list. I can do that, because I am big.
Profile Image for Hannah Greendale.
701 reviews3,355 followers
May 9, 2017
Click here to watch a video review of this book on my channel, From Beginning to Bookend.

René Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in New France as young men to work for a seigneur. In exchange for three years of labor they will be apportioned land on which to build a home and start a family. René is a diligent and focused woodcutter, despite a relentless onslaught of hardship. Duquet seeks an alternate life path, one that proffers a successful timber business. Building on the lives of both indentured Frenchmen, this multi-generational saga unfolds to reveal the triumphant yet sorrowful lives of both René and Duquet's ancestors over the course of centuries. With each successive generation, survival hinges on logging, and the lawless destruction of ancient forests has unforeseeable consequences for future generations.

For all its ambition, Barkskins is as successful as it is flawed. Its prose is most stylish when portraying the book's most expansive central figure: the forest.

In a few hours the sodden leaf mold gave way to pine duff. The air was intensely aromatic. Fallen needles muted their passage, the interlaced branches absorbed their panting breaths. Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen in the old country for hundreds of years, evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage.

The forest had many edges, like a lace altarpiece. Its moody darkness eased in the clearings.

The author gives a magnificent portrayal of three centuries of deforestation, highlighting the whiteman's misguided belief that the forest is everlasting and without end. Incessant logging, coupled with intentional fires and a stubborn refusal to replenish the land, devastates millions of acres. The once great forests suffer a harrowing metamorphosis on the page, a transition made more chilling for the depth of its truth.

"It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension."

. . . the wildness of the world receded, the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animal, trees to flesh and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped.

Also recorded with painful clarity are many malicious and unjust acts inflicted on native populations by white men who believe Indians do not appreciate their land and so feel morally obligated to claim it. To clear the forest and cultivate the land (at the expense of the lives and rights of native populations) is considered civilized and moral.

There were fewer Mi'kmaq every year and whitemen laughed and said with satisfaction that in forty more years they would be gone, gone like the Beothuk, vanished from the earth. It seemed true. There had never been so few Mi'kmaq since the beginning of time, less than fifteen hundred, the remains of a people who had numbered more than one hundred thousand in the time before the whitemen came.

When it comes to logging operations or the history of trade practices, Barkskins falls into an academic rhythm, assuming the feel of a tedious history textbook.

"To the point, in 1730 the Crown granted a five-year mast procurement license to Ralph Gulston, a Turkey merchant, one of those swarthy fellows who trade with the Levant. The license allowed him to enter Maine lands belonging to the Crown in 1691 - id est, public land - and cut mast pines for the Royal Navy." [. . .] "After some delay, Gulston hired a colonial logger, William Leighton, to cut the pines for him. And through the winter of 1733-34 Leighton cut them and dragged them out. No one objected. However, in the passage of years since 1691, title to the land had passed to an American, John Frost, of Berwick, Maine."

Numerous gruesome deaths and startling injuries are reported, but each incident is delivered with an air of detachment, garnering little to no reaction from the reader no matter how violent or potentially shocking the incident.

The book's greatest offense is the overwhelming number of characters and the hollowness of their individual stories. Some character stories outshine others; however, over the course of three hundred years (following two ancestral lines across seven-hundred pages), time rarely allows for readers to develop an interest in a particular character, let alone develop an emotional attachment. René and Duquet make for a captivating start to the narrative, but by the third and fourth generation, the list of husbands, wives, and expanding broods of children are difficult (i.e. near impossible) to keep straight - a dizzying task made more complicated by the introduction of uncles, aunts, and cousins (to say nothing of unrelated tertiary characters).

A grand undertaking that succeeds in some - but not all - areas, Barkskins is a sweeping chronicle of our diminishing forests as portrayed through an exhaustive array of characters.
Profile Image for Fran.
662 reviews637 followers
September 4, 2017
Barkskins is a sweeping saga recounting the ecological costs of progress. Forests are destroyed and Native Americans are marginalized. Reminiscent of James Michener's "Centennial" the author reminds us that this land is only ours to borrow and pass down to succeeding generations.

Two illiterate woodsmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in "New France" in the 17th Century only to endure extraordinary hardship as indentured servants. The goal is to work for 3 years in exchange for a plot of land. Sel is forced to marry a Mi'kmaq Indian and becomes a barkskin or wood cutter. Duquet escapes, travels the world, and starts a logging empire.

Duquet researches the timber trade learning the value of white pine trees to the Europeans. Duke & Sons Logging Co. is established. The Dukes realize that the forest is not eternal but deforestation still occurs as new settlers set fires to clear land. Only a small amount of forest becomes usable lumber. Most forest land is burned or abandoned in the name of progress as settlers build log cabins and RR ties are cut to build a transcontinental railroad.

Rene Sel and his descendants carve out a meager existence. Hunting places are destroyed, and the salmon rivers are clogged with logs and sawdust. Medicinal healing plants are destroyed as the forests are pushed back. To survive, the Mi'kmaq must take jobs the white men don't want. They become wood choppers and loggers. They are considered to be disposable labor, good as long as they last.

Annie Proulx gives us a detailed, extensively researched look into deforestation and the destruction of the Native American way of life. Proulx reminds us that we must find ways to renew our forests. I highly recommend this tome.

Thank you to Net Galley for an advanced digital copy of Barkskins.
Profile Image for Doug H.
286 reviews
April 3, 2016

I Couldn’t Enjoy The Forest For The Trees

Annie Proulx is a great writer. I have tremendous respect for her and The Shipping News (winner of both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award for Fiction) is one of my favorite novels. I was therefore very honored and excited when Netgalley and Scribner granted me an ARC of Barkskins for review. I bowed down and waved my arms, just like Garth and Wayne. I’m definitely not worthy.

Proulx must have done a ton of research in order to come up with the level of historical and cultural detail on display in this massive novel. Her efforts are obvious and admirable and I learned a lot. At the same time, many of these details felt extraneous to me - as though the author thought “well, I took all of this time to unearth all of these factoids so I’m definitely going to find a way to stuff all of them in here”. And so she did. Frankly, much of this minutiae bored me (particularly the details centered around the business dealings of the Duquet/Duke family). It also slowed the story down, prevented me from feeling immersed in it, and kept me from fully enjoying it.

This novel covers many many many generations and I have to admit I got lost in the forest trying to keep track of all of the connections (especially on the Duke side). I assume Scribner will include some sort of genealogical charts when this is published in June and that will help a lot. If not, all of you readers had better carry bags of breadcrumbs with you on the trail.

2.5 stars.
Profile Image for Perry.
632 reviews533 followers
May 25, 2020
Awe-Inspiring, Far-Reaching Epic of Descendants of 2 French Settlers, Charles Duquet & Rene' Sel, in 1693 New France (now in Nova Scotia) and Destinies Over Next 320 Years

I enjoyed this sweeping epic covering nearly 320 years. Though 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).

The greed and rage of Charles Duke (formerly Duquet) is on full display here:
“Inside Duquet something like a tightly closed pine cone licked by fire opened abruptly and he exploded with incensed and uncontrollable fury, a life’s pent-up rage. ‘No one helped me,’ he shrieked, ‘I did everything myself. I endured. I contended with powerful men. I suffered in the wilderness. I accepted the risk I might die. No one helped me!’ The boy’s gaze shifted, the fever-boiled eyes following Duquet’s rising arm closing only when the tomahawk split his brain.”

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.

Kauri Tree in New Zealand, where part of novel takes place

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.
Profile Image for Ron Charles.
1,050 reviews48.7k followers
June 7, 2016
At more than 700 pages, covering three centuries, “Barkskins” is an awesome monument of a book, a spectacular survey of America’s forests dramatized by a cast of well-hewn characters.

Granted, your interest in forests may not extend to 700 pages, or even — to be honest — to seven, but such is the magnetism of Proulx’s narrative that there’s no resisting her thundering cascade of stories. By drilling deep into the woods that enabled this country to conquer the world, Proulx has laid out the whole history of American capitalism and its rapacious destruction of the land.

She begins in. . . .

To read the rest of this review, go to The Washington Post:
Profile Image for William2.
758 reviews3,079 followers
June 14, 2021

“The planet is warming not only because of fossil fuels, but also because soil, forests and wetlands are being ravaged.

“Some scientists are looking into ways to put some of that carbon back into living ecosystems, changing the way we use land.”

—New York Times, 18 April 2018

Set in the seemingly infinite virgin forests of the Canadian northwest. Barkskins is a narrative of hurtling speed about the frittering away the earth’s resources. Hyper-compressed, two pages equals two to three years. Naturally the American Indian can’t be far away in such a tale, with his contrasting sustainable view of the earth. I was hooked from page 5. The story is also on one level about the vulgar development of our nation, an astonishing place much like today’s corporate America with but without indoor plumbing or rule of law.

René Sel is a taciturn Frenchman who works hard and pays his way. He marries an Indian woman, Mari, and they grow movingly close before she dies. Then René dies at 40. They are survived by two daughters, Zoë and Noë. Lives are brutal and short.

Duquet, the companion with whom René came to New France, is little more than a seething mass of covetousness and greed. He’s very good at making money. He cheats everyone without fail. He murders children who bother him. I was waiting for him to die horribly in the grim northern forest he was so busily destroying. Yet when the chance for violence came, Proulx deferred. She prefers her violence random. There are no just deserts. The good are mauled equally with the bad. Everyone endures the same menacing uncertainty. Money for a while insulates the avaricious from the horrors of the wild. But sooner or later they too must appear in the unforgiving landscape and take their chances.

Now we’ve returned to the mixed progeny of René and Mari who try to make their way in the boreal forest. It’s the eve of the French and Indian War. The poor Indians, as if they were not oppressed enough, are pressed into service as conscripts against the British. This is a tragedy even more moving, if that is possible, than their loss of the land. Each generation of Mi’kmaq marries with the French. Their language and folkways are slowly diluted. They are subject to racist pogroms; their numbers, already small, further dwindle. Slowly they are subsumed by the whites so that only traces of who they were remain. It’s criminal what white Europeans and their offspring did to the Indians, and that wrong can never be righted. Well, at least we have Proulx, who, after much research and inquiry, shows us something of what it must have been like. Yet the book, so engagingly written, is at the same time something of a cenotaph marking the loss of so many lives. The sheer capriciousness of the murdering takes the breath away. One can see why Proulx wanted to write such a book.

A quibble. In the ongoing rush of years, it’s hard to keep track of who is older or younger, relatively speaking. The characters, barely described, seem to spit out children like tobacco juice. Proulx gives time frames in the table of contents, e.g. “1825-1840,” and whenever a new section starts, but these seem insufficient. Another trick is sudden gray hair—whamo! Proulx doesn’t want to bother with the space wasting time-is-passing transitions—the book is already 714 pages long—so she resorts to ages, babies and gray locks as a short cut. It doesn’t always work. One feels jerked abruptly into the future. Well, one thinks, what happened in the intervening years? If I’m having these problems, as a close reader, certainly others must be too.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the book a lot, and it has given me pleasure. But there are aspects of the book I wish were otherwise. For example, the adoptive sons of Duquet, who now call themselves Duke—they are Jan, Bernard and Nicholaus—are almost indistinguishable from one another. It’s as if Proulx has set a challenge for herself here. Under description can be a virtue. The key is to associate the character in the reader’s mind with some snappy attribute, e.g. physical, mental, moral, etc. all the while keeping the descriptive baggage as light as possible. But Proulx in my view sometimes goes too light, with the result that some characters, like Duquet’s sons, lie flat on the page. As artists like to say about some piece of art or design work, it doesn’t pop.

Yes, so the lead characters are so lightly limned that there indistinguishable. Another point, through page 245 at least, there are virtually no digressions. This dearth reminded me of the wonderfully digressive description of glove making in Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, and of all the detail of hunting and processing the sperm whale in Moby Dick. There’s nothing like that here though there are many opportunities to do so. We stay on the surface of the action; we are swept along by the inexorably ticking clock.

But there’s only so much satisfaction in harping on what a book isn’t. Let’s emphasize what it is—a compact narrative of gripping forward propulsion. Its proportions are staunchly reinforced. There can be no straying if we are to finish our story in a timely manner. By that I do not mean to imply that it seems in anyway hurried. Not at all. It is masterfully self-assured. Every artwork has its limits; they are the flume that carries logs down a mountain to a river. Ineffective art loses a sense of its own limits, or transgresses them without plan. Novels that do that, when not damned outright, are called sprawling. Barkskins is long but sprawl it doesn’t. Proulx has an enviably complete control of her art. One can bitch about the novel’s straight-jacketing format, but within those parameters one must admit there can be no complaint.

When a hunter-gatherer people are overrun by agricultural settlers, the former’s way of life, so tied to the land, is sundered. Without the land, the Indian no longer has the central element grounding his culture. In short, that culture’s underpinnings are stripped away in a few generations. Proulx makes a crucial point here when Kuntaw starts taking Boston men on excursions to fish and shoot. In the Indian way, learning the behaviors of game animals so they could be hunted without guns required a long apprenticeship. It was a rite of passage for males. Hunting was the Indian man’s work and it was time-consuming. But the Bostonians with the guns see it as mere play, something done at leisure on vacation. The whites can’t begin to see what they have despoiled and they don’t understand why the Indian is so “lazy.” Of course, he’s not lazy, but he’s been stripped of the natural setting in which his people have thrived for so long. Hunting isn’t leisure, it’s a way of life, now sadly gone.

Stripped of his legacy, the young Indian takes work where he can find it. In the early and mid-1800’s, which is where we are now in the story, that means working in the lumber camps. Thus he contributes to the white man’s destruction of his old habitat for meager pay while white fortunes are made. As for many of the Indian women, without the family which is so central to the Indian way of life, they become drunkards, prostitutes, troublemakers. The essence of the book is the destruction of the Indian culture and folkways, and its replacement by unsustainable white man ways.

Let me add that Proulx’s command of detail is astonishing. It threads the story together. I have some idea of the research required for such a book, but what must the plan have looked like? There had to be some formula for it but I’ll be damned if I can conceive of it. This, Hemingway said in his letters, is the mark of a truly exceptional book. You read it, and you reread it, but you never know quite how it’s done. Herein lies the literary magic, which is greater than the sum of its mere parts.

This is too long. I’ll have to condense it when I’m finished. My latest observation is that the unit of a lifetime, by which most novels are measured, is here a convention discarded by the author. Or shorter, think One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. That’s what I’m used to as a reader of novels. The arc of the human life, at most a few human lives, is the chronological time span that carries one through a novel. But this book covers 4 centuries. Scores of characters are born, come to maturity, get married and die within a 100 pages. This comment speaks to the idea of hyper compressed narrative that I mentioned earlier.

Then again there comes through this idea of the ruthless inexorability of time, chewing up lives, moving on. The indifferent universe, yes. The children, especially, seem to drop like flies, such was the severity of infant mortality then. It’s rather brutal the way they’re all killed off in one way or another. No one spared the axe, if you will. In this respect they are like the trees murdered in their millions. And all this death is at the service of a “chronicle” of the mad impulse of deforestation in a creature, homosapiens, that has absolutely no regard for the larger ecological significance of his actions. The attitude is laid out most succinctly in a dialogue between Armenius and Julius Breitsprecher on p. 478, in which Americans’ lamentable lack of sustainable forestry practices is bemoaned. The book is certainly a candidate for Great American Novel. I think an argument at least for inclusion in that esteemed category can be made.

Now it occurs to me—belatedly—that even this book is made of trees, and there is no Forest Stewardship Council logo or equivalent on the colophon to show that it was sourced sustainably.
Profile Image for Hugh.
1,272 reviews49 followers
September 2, 2017
What an extraordinary book. It encompasses the history of the major North American forests from the 17th century to the present day, and combines this with two loosely connected family stories. This ought to be too complex and ambitious to work, but for me it got more compulsive the more I read.

At the start of the book we meet two poor Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, who are contracted to work for a settler from a French aristocratic family in a forest in New France. Duquet runs away while Sel remains loyal, and is persuaded to marry a Mi'kmaw Indian woman who has been contracted as a cook. Duquet is an ambitious wheeler dealer who starts a business empire which concentrates on logging, while Sel's family lead a marginal existence with the vestiges of the Mi'kmaw. Both families are followed all the way to the present day, and Proulx exposes the way in which the forestry industry destroyed most of America's primeval forests and most of the Indian tribes' homelands and sources of food. The book is full of memorable characters (Lavinia, the heiress to the Duquet empire in particular), but as in Proulx's earlier novel Accordion Crimes, most of their lives come to premature ends.

For such a long book, this is surprisingly enjoyable, in fact it is among the best new American novels I have read in the last few years.
Profile Image for Dana Kenedy (Dana and the Books).
212 reviews1,013 followers
September 29, 2016
This review can also be found on my blog, Dana and the Books.

There aren’t an abundance of Canadian history novels of this type, so I jumped on this book like Torontonian spotting a Tim Horton’s on a long road trip.

I loved the overall story of the book. Long historical epics are awesome. Long historical epic about Canada are even more awesome.

References and settings in places I have actually visited helped me picture and get more involved with the story. However, I did feel a disconnect from the characters. I didn’t get emotionally attached to any of them; I was just there on the sidelines watching them do their thing.

Despite the distance from the characters, it was still an interesting read (especially for someone who has an interest in Canadian history and Native Canadian history).

At just over 700 pages it’s by no means a quick read. I read it slowly over the course of a couple months, but it wasn’t the length that made me read slowly, it was the density. Some chapters glazed over important events with several years passing in the span of just a few pages. I wanted to experience events with the characters, but instead it was just a paragraph of explanation and then moving on to the next thing. Unfortunately, it made for a bit of a dry read in places.

It was not at all a character driven story. None of the characters stood out to me and by the end of the book they had all meshed together. I wish it were longer so we could get to know the characters, flesh out events instead of glossing over them.

I love historical epics. The longer the better. But this one definitely should have been longer. If it were longer (or split into two larger books), we could get the experience of both an interesting, epic plot, as well as the characters who drive it. Instead, at times I felt like I was reading a non-fiction account of the history of two families and the ramifications of deforestation.

Interesting, yes. Captivating, no.

Thanks so much to HarperCollins UK, 4th Estate for approving me for a copy on Netgalley!
Profile Image for Leah.
1,435 reviews221 followers
December 8, 2019
Abandoned at 30% on the grounds of trying not to die from boredom. Another case of an author doing a ton of research, bunging it all down on paper and thinking that's enough to make a novel. It isn't. Let me save you reading the whole 700+ pages - spoiler alert! White man bad - destroys land, forest and indigenous way of life! There! Bet you're as astonished at that major revelation as I am...

In fairness, other reviews suggest that eventually she widens it out to clarify that ALL men are bad...
Profile Image for PattyMacDotComma.
1,488 reviews844 followers
August 29, 2021
Wonderful, memorable characters, some of whom live long lives and make fortunes and some who meet sudden, miserable, grisly fates, including one poor fellow who became “meat”. Sadly, he was one of the good guys, but there are many who are rascals or downright evil, and it’s satisfying when they are chewed up and spat out of the story. Or cut in half and flung overboard on one of the many horrendous sea voyages.

In 1693, two lone Frenchmen. Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive to appalling conditions as indentured servants in the 1700s, where they are faced with a vicious master, freezing winter, and the thickest woodland they’ve seen. [I defy readers not to feel cold and miserable!] They are to chop trees down for the next three years to earn their freedom, so they ask about the thick forest.

“It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension.”

And that’s what they believed. A never-ending supply of timber, because they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. They forgot some of those enormous trees took hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years to grow. And the other plants and organisms in the forest were needed to make trees healthy, and vice-versa, as well as sources of food and medicine.

Proulx pulls no punches when it comes to how hard life was for those “opening up” the new world or for those who were there first. This is not a warm, cosy read.

There are a lot of French and Indian words sprinkled throughout, which I liked. Incidentally, the terms “Indians” and “whites” are used, as they would have been then, while the names of different tribes and family groups are used by both whites and Indians.

As I said, the author pulls no punches and isn’t worried about political correctness—she’s worried about the world. She may be preaching to the converted, those who don’t measure a forest by board-feet but who value it for other reasons. In her dedication, after she names specific people, she adds:

“And for barkskins of all kinds—
loggers, ecologists, sawyers, sculptors, hotshots,
planters, students, scientists, leaf eaters,
practitioners of shinrin-yoku, land-sat interpreters,
climatologists, wood butchers, picnickers, foresters,
ring counters and the rest of us.”

(She never clarifies what a barkskin is, but it seems to be anyone who is as rough as bark and/or works, uses, or appreciates trees. )

Of the original Frenchmen, Duquet escapes, but Sel sticks it out. Because the Indians aren’t “using” the land, (as God intended), it rightly belongs to those who do use it (chop and crop)—the white man. Most of the Indians succumb to disease, whiskey, and starvation as their food sources disappear and they are pushed out. Fish and eel traps are torn apart, medicinal herbs and plants are eradicated.

This isn’t any secret, but the characters are so clear, that it’s easy to get irate all over again. We follow both European and Indian families, and I was pleased Proux dates her chapters and reminds us which family we’re in to keep us on track.

And the discussion of the timber industry around the world is detailed and extensive. More than some may wish to know, but I found most of it interesting. There is a section near the end in more modern times which dragged (for me), but for the most part, it does what good historical fiction does. It tells the truth in such a memorable way that we can’t pretend we don’t know what happened.

Proux shows the ax and sawmills eating their way across North and South America and New Zealand.

Joni Mitchell put it well in Big Yellow Taxi:

“They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum
And they charged all the people
A dollar and a half to see 'em
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
'Till it's gone
They paved paradise
And they put up a parking lot”

It would be nice to think this will have the sort of effect that Silent Spring did for alerting the public to poisonous chemicals, but I’m not sure Proulx thinks we will learn. As one of her European characters, who raises and plants seedlings, says of Americans (and it could be said about most self-interested politicians):

"Americans have no sense of years beyond three--last year, this year and next year. I suppose I keep to my own ways. I like to know that there will be a forest when I am gone."

I'd like to know that, too.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollinsUK for allowing me to read an advance copy for review.

Below is a link to an interesting interview with Proulx, who says she was sad to discover she’s allergic to red cedar!


And this is a link to an article about what appears to be a very old expression (possibly from the 1500s) “can’t see the wood [forest] for the trees”. Apparently Americans say “forest”.

Profile Image for Phrynne.
3,333 reviews2,146 followers
August 23, 2018
It is a few years since I read The Shipping News but I remember that I enjoyed it so I decided to try another of Annie Proulx's books. Not sure that this was the best one to choose though!

Most reviewers seem to refer to Barkskins as an epic saga. It is certainly epic - at times it seemed endless. And it is most certainly a saga as it moves through a span of some three hundred years, changing main characters each time someone dies. This feature became a drawback as some of the many characters were never quite fully formed while others were remarkable and noticeably missed when they had completed their part.

Annie Proulx is certainly a remarkable writer and the prose was just beautiful. She obviously feels very strongly about environmental issues and the book dealt with deforestation and its impact on several continents. It was interesting and thought provoking but in the end read more like a history book than a novel. Still very worthwhile reading but not as good as I had hoped.
Profile Image for LA Cantrell.
424 reviews555 followers
August 16, 2016
If you look closely, you may glimpse the cone of shame Ive just strapped on in order to give this magnificent author's book a meager three stars.

Annie Proulx can WRITE, seriously and brutally and with wit, insight - even delicacy at times. It is entirely unfair for me to guess or judge why she included hundreds of years, dozens of characters, and myriad settings in Barkskins. But it did not work for me.

This book reminded me of the latest written by Louise Erdrich - generations of offspring or ancestors that disappear just as you start to care about them. It felt a bit like Luminaries - a looonnnnnnnnnnnng story (broken into gimmick-sized chapters) about the rape and pillage of the land for its natural resources.

When she abruptly killed off her three main characters at the book's beginning (oh, how I loved Marie who dropped hemlock seeds into her former lover's wedding pudding!), it took me a bit to shake it off. A side character suddenly reappeared to switch the setting from New France timber country to months spent in a garden in China - built as a reflection of the country's landscape (yes, Annie, we get the blatant metaphor), to France, Boston, the woods again...and then all the next generation kicked in.

A mother bear burnt alive, a selfless old tribal healer, the inception of factories, and more widely disparate events clotted this epic's blood vessels like the logs and sawdust that choked off the fish from the streams.

Perhaps if I did not know anything about the clearing of land, this would have grabbed me more. "The Clearing" by Tim Gautreaux and "Serena" by Ron Rash were both five star reads for me, not only making me ache for the loss of natural beauty, but investing me in characters with whom I could develop a meaningful relationship. At least for a couple hundred pages. Sorry, Ms Proulx!
Profile Image for Laura F-W.
192 reviews144 followers
February 21, 2016
This epic novel requires a big investment - it’s long, it’s complex, it covers a lot of ground. But if you’re willing to make that investment you’ll be amply rewarded. It’s a historical eco-epic about the colonisation of North America with a focus on the destruction of vast swathes of ancient American forests by European settlers and the impact this had on the indigenous people.

The story begins with Renee Sel and Charles Duquet, two Frenchmen who move to Canada in 1693 in indentured servitude. While working for the rancorous Monsieur Trepagny, the paths of the two men diverge: pliant Sel is forcibly married to Mari of the Mi’kmaq people, but Duquet flees and proceeds to found a logging empire. Through many generations, the book traces the disparate fortunes of the two families.

In a way, it’s a tale of (business) cowboys and Indians. While the white business owners profit immensely from logging and deforestation, their Mi’kmaw cousins are marginalised, displaced and abused as they watched their ancestral lands destroyed. It’s also about a family split in two along racial lines, and how that privilege differential plays out over more than three centuries. The adversity faced by the Mi’kmaw characters is incredibly difficult to read at times.

For the first part of the book, the loggers and European settlers are constantly asserting that the forests are infinite, that they are so large humans could never destroy them. They're so certain that the forests are indestructible that they proactively and aggressively destroy vast tracts of woodland through logging and fire. It turns out they were wrong.

(Coutesy of Greenpeace: Map of remaining intact ancient forest in North America. The light and dark areas combined are the original extent of forest cover. The dark area only is what remains of ancient forest)

Reading the book in 2016, I found it hard to believe that people could have been so arrogant and stupid as to believe that the forests were disposable, cutting down millenium-old trees without a second thought. Then I remembered that THIS IS STILL HAPPENING ALL OVER THE WORLD. It’s the kind of book which really brings home what a perilous situation we’re in when it comes to the natural world; it’s uncomfortable reading but it’s also galvanising.

While the writing was always great, I must admit that my attention ebbed at a few points. In particular, there’s a chapter (The Severed Snake 1756-1766) that goes into detail about the business dealings of the Duke family and the various legal problems they face. I found this quite dull and it took me a while to hack my way through. But that was the only part of the book I didn’t enjoy, after that the pace picked up considerably.

An inherent problem with books that follow a huge number of characters over a long time is that there’s little room to get to know individual characters. While some were given a lot of air time and stood out (), it was difficult to keep track of who was who and how they were related. I read an ARC version which didn’t contain a family tree, but I hope that the final published version does because I ended up having to write everything down on bits of paper to keep track.

Proulx must have undertaken years of painstaking research to be able to pull this off. It’s vibrant and realistic and each historical era is clearly drawn. I would recommend it to fans of historical fiction and those interested in conservation and environmental ethics.

(With thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in return for an honest review)
Profile Image for Book Riot Community.
953 reviews160k followers
March 2, 2016
This is the first novel from Annie Proulx (The Shipping News, Brokeback Mountain) in fourteen years!!!! Spoiler: IT’S SO GOOD. It’s a 736-page multigenerational family saga revolving around two Frenchmen and their descendants, that takes place over the span of three hundred years. René Sel and Charles Duquet sail to “New France” to work the land for a feudal lord in order to gain land for themselves. Under harsh conditions in hostile territory, they manage to survive, and go on to raise families that will themselves travel the world and also face adversity. Some of the situations in the novel are brutal, but Proulx has never been one to offer up an easy story. What she gives us is amazing writing and storytelling that will kick your heart around your ribcage like a soccer ball. We loves the precious.
— Liberty Hardy

from The Best Books We Read In February: http://bookriot.com/2016/03/01/riot-r...
Profile Image for Amanda.
1,128 reviews230 followers
May 30, 2017
This was a really ambitious novel that I can't help but admire Proulx for the time and dedication it took to write this. It spans approximately 300 years and has SO many characters. Thankfully there was a family tree in the back. At 700+ pages this book was both too long and too short. There were so many characters and the book moved through the generations so fast it was hard to really care about or get invested in anyone. There were some characters/families that I felt like could have been their own book. But I really wouldn't have wanted to read anymore about trees. This is one that I'm happy I read but I'm also happy it's over.

Profile Image for Lark Benobi.
Author 1 book2,137 followers
January 30, 2019
I need to start with my complaints. 713 pages was not enough to tell this story. I ended up keeping my laptop nearby with "Google Books" an open tab, so I could search for characters' names throughout the book and could pull out their individual stories as they wove through the novel. None of these characters came fully alive for me as individuals to care about, because their time strutting across the stage of this book was too brief for me to form a vivid connection, and then I was asked to care about the next character instead. It's a Bayeux Tapestry of a novel, full of important happenings that are compressed into too-small spaces.

Five stars anyway, for the audacity of the attempt; for Proulx's realistic representation of the continuous tumult of time and history (after all even the most vivid characters are forgotten when their time is over); and for the striking vividness of the scenes when they do come--I'll never forget the images presented to me, in scene after scene, of lives and experiences of other times.
Profile Image for Trudie.
544 reviews586 followers
September 21, 2016
I found this is an exceptionally difficult book to review because it is an exceptionally ambitious novel and my feelings on it swung wildly from "masterpiece" to "please make her stop talking about scaling logs".

Spanning 300 odd years and multiple family lineages it takes a very wide angle lens to the history of deforestation in North America (and also NZ). This is an odd hybrid of a book, it sometimes reads like an ecological polemic (particularly the last section) and I enjoyed it best when I adjusted to thinking of it as a linked collection of short stories. Still, there is some indefinable quality to Proulx's writing that particularly appeals to me - a dark, dry humour, a sense of the bizarre and the ability to make even minor characters memorable.

"The governor was a haughty snob, un becheur with a ceft chin and a bulge of throat fat. He gave off an air of having hung in a silk bag in the adjoining room until it was time for him to emerge and perform the duties of his position"

The cast of characters in this is large as you might expect, but you can't get yourself too attached to them as more often than not they are dispatched in some freak lumbering accident or cruel but historically relevant illness. It is easy to feel cheated by this particularly if you are just starting to enjoy a character. Many others wander off into obscurity, producing several descendants that will spring up fully formed later on and take up the reins of the narrative. The family tree in the back is utterly indispensable and you almost need to annotate it with the varied fates of each member.

The years of research Proulx put into this are obvious, historical markers are weaved into the text in ways that sometimes makes this feel like a non-fictional work. For the most part I enjoyed these surprising titbits about food, clothing, politics and of course forestry techniques. You get an awful lot about axes and milling in general. I won't deny it can get very tedious in parts, certainly I often got lost as we traipsed around various lumber camps searching for wayward family members.

As a 700 page reading experience it is a big commitment. It feels noble but ultimately flawed as a novel. I appreciated Proulx attempt at a kind of ecological-epic, giving the reader a birds-eye view of 300 years of catastrophic change but it is appreciated, in my opinion, much like some large paintings, from a distance, stand too closely and all the flaws suddenly become apparent.

(I thought this critical review by Philip Hensher made some interesting points.)

Profile Image for Bam cooks the books ;-).
1,915 reviews248 followers
June 22, 2017
*4.5 stars! An epic work of historical fiction which spans the nearly 300 years of North American deforestation, told through the stories of two families, beginning with the arrival of the young Frenchmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, in New France in 1693. They have been engaged to work for a rich farmer, Monsieur Claude Trepagny, for a period of three years, to clear the immense forest from his land and earn the right to property of their own.

Sel works hard and doesn't complain when forced to marry a native Mi'kmaw woman, but scrawny Duquet runs away, preferring to try his hand at getting rich in other ways, like fur trading. Their stories and those of their descendants remain intertwined with each other and the seemingly endless forests that cover this wild new land. Sel's descendants, being of mixed race, struggle to live off the land in the old ways while Duquet becomes a businessman, changing his name to Duke when he deals with the English in Boston, and establishes what will become a lumber dynasty. Thank goodness Proulx includes a family tree for both families or the reader would soon get hopelessly lost but be forewarned that it is at the back of the book if you plan to read an ebook version.

The book carries a message and it is not subtle: that the forests of the world are not infinite and permanent, as these early barkskins and lumbermen believed, and our fates may be tied to their fates--their extinction may also be our own.

I would highly recommend reading The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate—Discoveries from a Secret World in conjunction with this book, for further understanding of the importance of trees and the interconnectedness of all life.

#2016-aty-reading-challenge-week-52: a book published in 2016.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,865 followers
September 13, 2016
Barkskins offers a complex and profound reading experience: a curl-up-and-while-away-the hours doorstop work of historical fiction; a thoroughly researched history lesson; a fierce narrative on the evils of resource extraction and environmental degradation. Spanning more than three hundred years, several continents, and multiple generations of interconnected families who make and break fortunes in the forested lands of eastern Canada, Maine, Ohio, Michigan, and New Zealand, Barkskins is essentially a story of greed.

Near the end of the 17th century, two indentured French men arrive in the wilds of the New World— that is now Quebec. One, Charles Duquet, escapes his servitude and eventually makes his fortune in the timber trade. The other, René Sel, remains bound to the forest, and is married against his will to a his master's Mi'Kmaq concubine, whom he comes to love deeply. These two family lines- the Dukes (Duquet anglicizes his name for business purposes) and the Sels- become the threads of this rich and capacious narrative tapestry.

As the Duke fortune builds and grows on the destruction of ancients forests, the novel earns its description of epic, traveling to Germany and the Netherlands, China and New Zealand. Generations come and go, each looking for forests more magnificent than the ones their forebears ruined. On the Sel side, cultural assimilation eliminates identities as tribal customs and wisdoms fall prey to European religion, disease, weapons, and greed.

This is gorgeous book, so rich and astonishing in it vastness of character, era and theme, the weaving of the smallest actions that send ripples of consequence for generations to come. For this reader, it falls apart in the last one hundred and fifty pages, as the modern era comes to light. Characters are thrown in fast and furiously, with no depth or development and the plot is left behind. It becomes a recitation of events that reads more like a lyrical op-ed than a story, casting a disconnected shadow over all that went before. I was also disengaged by the pidgin Proulx forced upon the Native American characters when speaking in their indigenous languages or even in English.

But this remains a tremendous, worthy, wholly-engaging read that entertains and teaches with vigor and intensity. Settle in and prepare to be astonished. And angered and saddened. One character's statement summarizes the whole ethos of man's determination to conquer his environment, the theme that Proulx dedicates herself to exposing in her novel: “My life has ever been dedicated to the removal of the forest for the good of men.”
Profile Image for Michael Livingston.
795 reviews252 followers
December 14, 2016
Phew. It's probably not a great sign when your predominant emotion on finishing a book is relief, but that's where I wound up with Barkskins. It's a dazzling achievement, a biography of North America's great forests from the late 1600s through to the present day told via the unwinding family trees of two early arrivals.

After 300-400 pages I was convinced this was going to be my book of the year - the first half unfold wonderously, hitting the perfect balance between developing actual characters and illustrating the transience of individuals when your scale is geographically and temporally big enough. It's dispiriting too - driving home (a little too obviously at times) the unimaginable destruction that colonisation brought to the people and environments of colonised places.

The second half has flashes of brilliance, but it felt a bit like it all got away from Proulx a bit - the cast of characters become harder to keep track of, the unfolding plot felt a bit purposeless and it turned into a bit of a struggle.

There's no denying the phenomenal ambition behind this book - incredible research, vivid imagination and sparkling writing make it worthwhile, but it takes stamina and commitment to push on all the way to the end.
Profile Image for Kinga.
479 reviews2,255 followers
March 19, 2018
There is a certain irony in writing a 700-page book lamenting deforestation. And another irony is that even though I love forests with a passion (they are to me everything that’s good, beautiful, mysterious and peaceful in the world), I wish this was a trilogy, rather than a single volume.

You can tell Proulx wanted to go on (she said as much in interviews) and she should’ve been allowed to do so. Instead, after the ambitious first sections, the novel feels rushed; it’s being diminished, and it feels like vital parts are being chopped off. One could benevolently assume it’s all a metaphor for diminishing forests, but the break-neck speed of final parts is more likely the effect of an editor and publishing breathing down the author’s neck and asking to wrap it up already.

This story wanted to be bigger than it was forced to be. The characters needed more air, more space to assert themselves. That is not to say that Proulx can’t draw a convincing portrait of a character in just 20 pages and the reader might read the works as a collection of connected short stories. However, the two families we follow from the 17th century deserved a more powerful ending, than an uninspired, ham-fisted piece of propaganda.

They deserved it because Proulx wasn’t particularly kind to them, killing them off with a flair. I’ve never met an author who seemed to find so much joy in finishing off their characters in so many inventive and cruel way. I hated it and I loved it. I feel like she should’ve explored the juxtaposition of the fleeting human life and the longevity of the forest that humans (mere fleas, from the trees’ perspective) manage to destroy in a few generations.

Of course, her agenda in this novel is showing and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as through most of the book it’s handled with subtlety. Man (mostly the white man) is on a relentless march of environmental doom and has been for centuries now. Her research is showing a lot more – and to establish the historical background of most chapters, the characters must go on bizarre monologues, summarising the zeitgeist.

In general, dialogues do not seem to be Proulx’s forte. They are particularly jarring, when her Native American characters are talking and inconsistently switch between pidgin English and literary English with no purpose (it doesn’t correlate with when they are supposed to be speaking their native language).

It might seem like I criticised this Barkskins a lot because it is an imperfect novel, but I also got hours of enjoyment from it. It was a wonderful experience of being immersed in a chunky, ambitious novel. And all those assholes in the Polish government should read this ( context)
Profile Image for Petra.
1,148 reviews15 followers
November 22, 2018
I'm a sucker for a family saga and this one is sweeping. I enjoyed every page and character. They were real. The trees, too, were characters in this novel. They lived & breathed as much as any human person. They mattered.
If there's a negative to this book, it's that the generations passed by quickly. The characters aged quickly; we missed a lot of their lives. They were so real; it would have been nice to get to know them deeper. I have to laugh as this would easily double the length of this book. However, despite the quick passage of years, these people showed their character, had their say and continued their families.
The trees played a large part throughout. They were the third family in this story. The greed that surrounded them and shaped their futures is sad. Everywhere, the trees were seen only for their monetary value. The destruction of Nature seldom considered.

This book, though 700+ pages, went by quickly and could have gone on longer. A wonderful saga that I could have gone on reading for some time yet.
67 reviews3 followers
June 6, 2016
I received my advance copy of Barkskins through the Goodread’s Giveaway. I plodded through this book for 2 months until I finished it, never very excited to pick it up to see where the story was going.

As the novel progresses through over 300 years of history, there were small sections that were insightful, well described and memorable: the initial walk that Charles Duquet and Rene Sel take through the forest of New France; the moose hunt in the north that Achille takes with his son Kuntaw; the blazing forest fire that roars down on the lumber camp.

But unless I missed any underlying themes, the subject of forestry is one-dimensional throughout the entire long novel as we are given countless stories of the folly of the resource-industry and the mistreatment of natives in North America and their loss of culture and identity. And that leads to my biggest disappointment in the novel, the repetition. As the novel never spends much time with any one character, the theme of resource depletion arises again and quickly pushes those interesting moments to the background and distant memory – those moments of joy and the characters you start to find interesting quickly disappear and die.

It’s as if I was listening to an orchestra perform a concert, but the horn section was just playing one note over and over again and that drone became the focus of attention so I lost the nuance that the violins could have provided to the overall piece of music.
Profile Image for Jenny (Reading Envy).
3,876 reviews3,120 followers
October 17, 2021
For me, historical sagas are a struggle and that's why I value readalongs, to finally pick up the hefty tomes I ignore. It is unlikely this will replace The Shipping News on my love list for this author because she does so much with less in that one, and Barkskins is just a lot - so many characters, so many places, difficult to keep it all straight in my head.

I think I'm giving the book four stars and myself five for finishing it.
Profile Image for Snotchocheez.
595 reviews336 followers
July 11, 2016
Barkskins, Annie Proulx's three century-long fictionalized homage to the "New France" (i.e. Quebecois Canadian) indigenous (Mi'kmaw Indians) and transplanted (Indentured servants from France working for their freedom and a plot of land) forest denizens integral to the logging trade, is much easier to admire than laud. If I was a gifted novelist in my eighties, and had a family I wished to celebrate and immortalize, I'd want to do exactly what Ms. Proulx seemed to accomplish here: preserve my family's legacy by writing a parallel-historied James Michener-esque epic saga. The end result here, however, while occasionally fascinating, often feels choppy and muddled. Just when Proulx would hit her narrative stride in introducing an umpteenth new character and I'd finally start feeling an affinity for him or her, Proulx would abruptly kill them off, either by logging accident or smallpox (for example) in a way that seemed like Proulx was bored and wanted to move on (leaving the reader in the lurch). That seeming feeling (of Proulx's abandoning characters at her whim), was just too difficult to reconcile.(Like: If she doesn't give a shit about her characters, why should I be expected to?)

There are, however, a few of the qualities on display here that were distinctive in some of her past successful novels (The Shipping News and Accordion Crimes among two of them that I read and enjoyed) like her ability to make the past come alive in a compelling way. I never really thought I'd find myself immersed in a novel about the history of logging (of all subjects) before reading this, but Proulx's prose never failed to draw me back into the story (even as my attention started to wander from its repetitive subject matter.)

I was chided when I wrote a (rather scathing) review a few years ago for Bird Cloud (Ms. Proulx's memoir/bitchfest about her acquiring a massive ranch in Wyoming to facilitate her loves of solitude and bird watching). My fellow Goodreader reminded me to (with words to the effect of) 'judge the art, not the artist'. I couldn't help, the whole time I was reading this, thinking of my reaction to Bird Cloud. The memoir (and the ensuing ranch it chronicled, which, fittingly enough was almost entirely devoid of trees in its gazillion acres) were (to me) a narcissistic blotch on what had been until then a stellar writing career. While I can't endorse Barkskins outright, I do think that she erased some of that icky beshitted-upon feeling I had of her after reading Bird Cloud. This too, I'm guessing, was in its own way an act of (epic) narcissism, but ultimately I think she (in creating her fictional parallel lineage) did herself and her real families) proud. I just wish I could have loved it more, though.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,932 reviews439 followers
June 12, 2020
Judging 'Barkskins' by scholarship alone, this is a five-star read. It is packed with detail about how people lived from 1693 to 2013. The story is a fictional multi-generational family history which begins with two indentured Frenchmen who immigrate to what is now Quebec, Canada. The book explains ultimately through the descendants of the Frenchmen why forests no longer exist except in patches here and there. Annie Proulx is an experienced prize-winning author, so the book does not appear to me to include a bias or an explicit political ax to grind. She didn't need to, gentle reader. The facts speak for themselves.

By following the descendants of René Sel, who links his future and that of his children and children's children to the slow death of the Mi'kmaw tribe in the following centuries when he marries the Indian Mari in an arranged marriage, and those of Charles Duquet, whose ambition leads him from cutting down trees in New France for an aristocrat adventurer to selling furs in China to educating himself in France to starting a logging empire headquartered in Boston, readers are given a quick history of the passing of the age of forests from North America to New Zealand to China to Europe. Readers also see how Aboriginals around the world intermarry and kill white colonists in vain while at the same time dying in thousands from European diseases and drinking European alcohol. Europeans reap 'free' trees, stolen from the original Aboriginal settlers, to create wealthy family dynasties or just to survive another wage-earning season.

Proulx gives us fascinating characters to enioy. The author is one of those writers who says a lot about her characters with a few well-written brushstroke phrases of her pen so that the fictional characters feel authentic. Some of her characters are romanticized strong-willed daughters, who are sometimes able to run the business of their deceased fathers or uncles entirely because of personality and their inherited wealth, and the author hints at homosexuality of some of the descendants. But unfortunately for readers, each generation is allowed only about 150 pages before time and technology and the next generation overtake them in this epic. The deaths of various protagonists and antagonists we get to know are kinda fun, or horrible, depending on your sensitivity and involvement, dear reader, so, the fact is you shouldn't get too attached to anyone.

Readers who enjoy literary histories may find reading Proulx's efficient and occasional lyrical prose is more similar in format to that some memoirs and travelogues use - autobiographical sketches. Her historical scholarship is phenomenal, but she delivers information about the logging business with the emphasis on the extraordinary drive to succeed of the entrepreneurs who found the drama of creating wealth from 2x4 lumber more exciting than their families or the fact they were developing a country. But I think this book will not suit those readers seeking adventurous thrills and chills.

I don't believe environmental scientists or leftists will feel the same awe about the driving entrepreneurial passions and personal travails of Proulx's characters that many historical-fiction readers or literary fans may feel. At one point in the novel, German consultants hired by American descendants around 1840 exploring new forests for possible purchase and exploitation express amazement at the permanent despoiling of the soils of America in the haste to cut down the trees or to plant crops. This scene in this mostly factually accurate novel put me in a grumpy state of mind.

I am sad, gentle reader. But the following links, which pick up where the book stops, real non-fiction truth, makes me even sadder:


Profile Image for Vaso.
1,211 reviews158 followers
May 15, 2020
Ένα βιβλίο αρκετά μεγάλο στον όγκο του και μάλιστα σε δερματόδετη έκδοση από τις εκδόσεις Καστανιώτη. Η ανάγνωση του απαιτεί την αμέριστη προσοχή του αναγνώστη και φυσικά δικαιώνεται.
Το βιβλίο ξεκινά με την άφιξη του Ρενέ Σελ και του Τσάρλς Ντουκέτ στη Νέα Γαλλία για να δουλέψουν στο δάσος υπ’ ευθύνη ενός αριστοκράτη της εποχης.
Στην ουσία παρακολουθούμε την πορεία των ανθρώπων αυτών  και των απογόνων τους μέσα στα χρόνια. Η συγγραφέας έχει παραδοθεί ολοκληρωτικά στη συγγραφή αυτού του βιβλίου, με λεπτομερείς αναφορές πάνω στη μορφολογία της περιοχής για παράδειγμα, στον τρόπο που λειτουργούσε η αποψίλωση των δασών από τους αποίκους, αλλά και με πλήρη ανάπτυξη των χαρακτήρων της.
Όμως δεν είναι μόνο αυτό που κάνει το βιβλίο εξαιρετικό.
Βλέπουμε σταδιακά πόσο ο άνθρωπος αδιαφόρησε για τη φύση και το περιβάλλον, παρόλο που το έβλεπε να συμβαίνει σε μικρότερη κλίμακα, δεν ενδιαφέρθηκε να το σταματήσει ή έστω να τροποποιήσει τις μεθόδους του
Profile Image for Micah Cummins.
206 reviews209 followers
May 29, 2023
This was a completely stunning novel. I was pulled in right from the start and wasn’t let go until the closing lines. Five stars.
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