Barkskins by Annie Proulx

I pulled a muscle getting this book off the shelf and put my life on hold whilst reading it. Set over 300 years, tracking mankind’s relentless and ignorant assault on the world’s great forests, Barkskins is the Sistine Chapel of novels. Grand in scale, lofty in its ambitions; this is not a poolside read – trust me I tried.

It is 1697 and two Frenchmen (Rene Sel and Charles Duquet) set foot on a small riverbank settlement in New England where they are confronted with a forest so vast and untouched that it had “no end and no beginning”.  An infinite wilderness filled with unknown trees, plants, animals and smells; where native Indian tribes lived at one with the forest and the rivers swelled with fish.

When each man was handed an axe and put to work, he set a path for himself and his many descendants to come.  One chose to live with and respect the forest; the other to exploit it at all costs.

Barkskins tracks their stories, and their families’ stories all the way to the present and their countless adventures and traumas are both fascinating and horrific. It also tells the story of the forest and I suspect the never-ending procession of Sel and Duquet descendants are just the means by which the trees finally get to do some talking.

It’s no secret that author Annie Proulx loves the wilderness. Pure nature is an ever-present backdrop in many of her greatest stories including the Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain; both of which were made into films. I adore her perspective, her ability to squeeze so much meaning into efficient sentences, her uncompromising research, the complete absence of repetition and her almost deadpan yet beautiful delivery.  I also love her quirky character names.

Many indigenous cultures around the world (including the Mi’kmaq Indian tribe which features heavily in Barkskins) use storytelling as a way to preserve their culture, traditions and history. Reading Barkskins, I wondered if Annie Proulx had set out to do the same thing. With such rich detail, I sense an almost desperate desire to capture as much of the forests’ story as possible; small compensation perhaps for the fact they will never be seen or known again.

Apparently Proulx spent 10 years researching this book but someone could have said 25 and I wouldn’t have blinked. The story references social change over an astonishing 300 year period touching on everything from religion, language, disease, commerce, politics, displacement of indigenous people and cultures, racial prejudice and of course technology and innovation in the timber industry.

Now I’m not going to lie and say it was an easy read (frankly reviewing it hasn’t been easy either). With some paragraphs as dense with references as the forests themselves, I found myself reading certain sections over and over just to get my head around them. My often futile attempts to keep on top of the descendants and their connections to each other weren’t helped much by the family tree at the back of the book and I was left with many questions left unanswered.

Despite all of this, I don’t think I can bring myself to fault Barkskins. I loved the people, the stories, the history and the message. I also loved the way it made me think about my own family tree and how we would look if condensed into one big beautiful book.

The only thing I will say is that is that maybe the story would be easier to absorb in picture form rather than text. Not necessarily the Sistene Chapel but perhaps an enormous tapestry so heavy and intricate that every time you looked at it, you would see something new. At the very least, it would help save more trees.

And that is my 2 cents worth.