I felt a little ashamed on settling down to read ‘Barkskins’ because it suddenly dawned on me that, despite happily calling myself a fan of Proulx’s fiction, I’ve only read her most famous works. As a teenager, I was introduced to her writing with ‘The Shipping News’, a heartbreaking and tender story of life in an isolated Newfoundland community. More recently I finally read ‘Brokeback Mountain’, one of the great romances of twentieth-century literature. I suppose diving into ‘Barkskins’ was a no-brainer. If it turned out to be one of Proulx’s best, then I’d be in from the start, if it was destined to become a niche novel with less popular appeal, I’d have succeeded in giving more credibility to my love of her writing.
One thing I knew before starting to read was that this book is epic in scope and length. It begins in the 17th century and ends over 700 pages later in 2013. The geography is equally vast; although the central stage is the American forest (pretty much all of it), characters travel across the high seas to Europe, China and New Zealand. Imposing some narrative order on this broad canvas, the main characters belong to two family trees (thoughtfully provided at the back of the book). We start in 1693 in New France, where René Sel and Charles Duquet, indentured servants, set to work chopping down trees. Escaping France, both men plan on making a new life in this strange, rich continent. As decades pass and the forest recedes, their descendants will have to continually reassess their relationship to the land and their hopes for the future.
For all the complex lives of the humans however, it is the adventures of the trees that dominate the novel. The seven years’ war, the war of independence and the American civil war affected the lives of humans but seems to have little impact on deforestation and so are only mentioned in passing. This book is not a historical novel that will necessarily increase your knowledge of early American trivia, it does however set out convincing arguments for unpicking American identity, myth-making and impact on the environment.
At the start of the novel, all European characters believe evangelically in the doctrine of ruling the earth and subduing it. It is their civilising mission to clear forests and wilderness to make space for agriculture and industry. Indigenous inhabitants are defrauded of their land on the basis that they don’t put it to any use, following as they do a culture that sees humans as a part of nature, rather than as engaged in battle with it. As Americans gain national confidence however, they begin to romanticise the ‘uncivilised’ spaces that remain, ‘the war for independence had linked the idea of freedom to a country of wild forests. Americans saw themselves as homines sylvestris – men of the forest.‘ As the novel speeds towards the twenty-first century, the nostalgia becomes stronger, and so does a sense of guilt and despair. A growing number of characters realise what has been lost, but the optimistic and pro-active confidence of the early generations has disappeared, along with any easy solutions to the problems they caused.
While the latent power of nature is always present in the novel, the impact of the characters varies according to how long we spend with them. As seems inevitable in such a complex narrative, some characters are barely present enough for their names to register. When a few are given developed life stories, they shine though and I can easily see myself going back to re-read about adventures of the ambitious Charles Duquet and his equally ambitious descendent Lavinia Duke. Other characters, often Sel’s ‘more sinned against than sinning’ part-Mi’kmaq children and grandchildren, make less of an impression as they find their lives subsumed into the larger narrative of their country, and this novel.
Overall, ‘Barkskins’ is a book for Proulx completists, but it is probably more likely to find its audience amongst readers of eco-fiction. Forget ‘Brokeback Mountain’, you should read ‘Barkskins’ if you loved Kingsolver’s ‘Prodigal Summer’ or Atwood’s speculative fiction. It’s a long and rewarding read, but only if you’re willing for humans to take a back seat in a much wider story.
I received my copy of ‘Barkskins’ from Harper Collins UK, 4th Estate via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.