Saturday, February 18, 2017

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Two indentured servants from France, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet (later anglicized to “Duke”), arrive in New France, as Canada was known at the end of the seventeenth century.  They and their descendants proceed to quite literally hack their way through the forests primeval of North America, even jumping across the ocean to devastate an area of New Zealand, until the woods are pretty much all gone.  Of course, in 712 pages, much more happens, but an awful lot of it involves axes, then later saws and heavy machinery, as the great trees are removed for masts and other lumber and the lesser trees are simply burned in the remaining stump land to clear it for agriculture.  There always seems to be yet another rich forest to plunder just over the horizon.  The resident Native Americans are collateral damage, but also become part of the Sel and Duke lineages as the centuries go by.  Proulx develops her large cast of characters with great skill and she is, as always, a wonderful storyteller.  However, this is primarily a devastating indictment of the despoliation of the environment and native peoples of the New World.  There’s a tiny light at the end of the book, when the last generation of these intertwined families turn their work towards repairing the damage if it isn’t too late.  Bleak.  712 pp.

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