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799 pages, Paperback
First published June 14, 2016
...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.
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 interviewIt 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.
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.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.
“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.”
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 articleThere 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.
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 interviewThere 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.
“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.”