From Annie Proulx - the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award - winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, comes her masterwork: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world's forests.
In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a "seigneur," for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters - barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi'kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years - their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions - the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.
Proulx's inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid - in their greed, lust, vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hopethat we follow them with fierce attention. Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable and compelling American writers, and Barkskins is her greatest novel, a magnificent marriage of history and imagination.
In twilight they passed bloody Tadoussac, Kébec and Trois-Rivières and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement.
René Sel, stiff black hair, slanted eyes, yeux bridésin ancient times invading Huns had been at his peopleheard someone say "Wobik." Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur. A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house. Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willows made the first impression of New France. The second impression was of dark vast forest, inimical wilderness.
The newcomers, standing in the rain waiting to be called to make their marks in a great ledger, saw the farmers clumped under a sheltering spruce. The farmers stared at them and exchanged comments.
At his turn René made not only an X but the letter Rmarred by a spatter of ink from the quilla letter which he had learned in childhood from the old priest who said it was the beginning of René, his name. ...
Barkskins is a sprawling, epic tour of the recent history of man in relation to the forests of the new world and the clash between indigenous populations of those territories and incoming prospectors – a situation that continues today. It is a thought-provoking work of dedication, written in assured, confident prose that's worth persevering through, particularly for readers who enjoy learning about history and the natural world through character and storytelling.
(Reviewed by Claire McAlpine).
Full Review (852 words).
Annie Proulx's historical novel, Barkskins, covers 320 years from 1693 to 2013. While it focuses more on the social and ecological impact on the lives it follows, the story wouldn't exist without the context of the political situation that brought these Frenchmen onto North American soil.
French interest in the New World began with King Francis I of France, who in 1524 sponsored Giovanni da Verrazzano (an Italian explorer in his service) to navigate the region between Florida and Newfoundland with the intention of finding a route to the Pacific Ocean.
Subsequently, the French explorer Jacques Cartier claimed the territory, planting a cross in the name of King Francis I in 1534. Financed by the King to search for sources ...
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