Losing the Forest for the Trees in Annie Proulx’s ‘Barkskins’

Lee Polevoi

 

Barkskins

By Annie Proulx

Scribner

736 pages

 

At the outset of Annie Proulx’s new novel, Barkskins, two impoverished Frenchmen arrive in New France (Canada) late in the 17th century. The primeval wilderness that greets René Sel and Charles Duquet offers imposing challenges as well as great opportunities:

 

“They passed through wet country. Hollows brimmed with tea-colored rainwater. The quaking sphagnum, punctuated with pitcher plants, sucked at every step. The young men had never imagined country so wild and wet, so thickly wooded. When an alder branch tore Duquet’s jacket he swore in a low voice. Monsieur Trépagny heard him and said he must never curse a tree, especially the alder, which had medicinal powers. They drank at streams, crossed shallow riffles curved like damascened scimitar blades. Oh, how much longer, muttered Duquet, one hand to the side of his face.”

 

Well-known for her novel The Shipping News and her masterful short stories (including “Brokeback Mountain”), Proulx has, at age 80, taken a different tack, sailing into the headwinds of a 700-plus-page novel. Barkskins follows the exploits and adventures of multiple generations of the Sel and Duquet (later renamed “Duke”) families. It also charts the progressively more destructive actions taken by the logging and timber industries over the course of the following centuries.

 

Proulx’s famously vivid language is on full display early on. When a porcupine is hunted and killed for food, the “animal pitched down like a falling star, trailed by blood drops.” The men encounter a waterway with “so many fish the river seemed made of hard muscle.” The cumulative effect of these seemingly effortless descriptions is a richly satisfying immersion in place and time.

 

In fact, the opening pages of Barkskins offer a sort of master-class in tone, setting and narrative. The immensity of the New World staggers the newcomers and the trek they undertake to their new employer’s residence deep in the forest leaves them exhausted and bewildered by what they’ve gotten themselves into:

 

 

“Monsieur Trépagny, gnawing on leftover meat, kicked Duquet and bawled ‘Levez-vous!’ René was up before Monsieur Trépagny could kick him. He looked at the meat in Monsieur Trépagny’s hand. The man tore off a piece and threw it to him, tore another and threw it to Duquet as one might throw scraps to a dog, then headed out with his tireless, lurching gait, following the cuts high on the trees. The new servants saw only darkness except to their rear, where the abandoned fire winked beguilingly.”

 

It’s natural to wonder if, in its entirety, Barkskins can maintain the bracing intensity and “you-are-thereness” throughout its hundreds of pages. For many readers, the answer is likely to be no. Members of eight generations begot by these two men, along with a great many secondary characters, populate the novel—a challenge to readers who will certainly consult the family trees located at the end of the story more times than once.

 

As the story progresses, there are surprisingly long sections of exposition replacing the more seductive immediacy of the early pages. And while characters often perish in typically picturesque fashion (a “specialty” throughout Proulx’s fiction), many haven’t taken on enough life for their bizarre deaths to resonate with the reader.

 

In the end, Barkskins is weighed down by the sheer plethora of characters and backstories, by overly detailed accounts of the workings of succeeding logging dynasties, and by the author’s laudable but tension-draining obsession with the rape of New World forests. Readers unfamiliar with Annie Proulx’s work may find the superb stories in Close Range and Bad Dirt a more welcoming introduction to her unique voice and vision.

 

Author Bio:

 

Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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