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Friday, September 16, 2016

Review of BARKSKINS by Annie Proulx

3.5 Stars
Every year I seem to read one big book; this year’s is Proulx’s 713 pages about the destruction of the world’s forests. 

This multi-generational historical novel begins with two French immigrants to New France.  Charles Duquet and René Sel are indentured servants.  Charles escapes his indenture and eventually founds Duke & Sons, a logging company that begins a dynasty.  René marries a Mi’kmaq woman; his Métis descendants become increasingly lost between the white man’s world and their traditional world and witness the destruction of their communities and culture.  In alternating chapters, the novel follows the descendants of these two men for 300 years as they take down not just trees but entire forests.

As would be expected, there are many characters.  Thank goodness for the two family trees at the end of the book!  Some characters are more developed than others.  I found that the ones at the end were more sketched than fully drawn; they made less of an impact on me.  The last 80 pages cover 120 years so these later generations are less memorable.  In the Sel family, René and Kuntaw stand out; in the Duke family, Charles and Lavinia leave the strongest impression. 

Proulx uses dramatic irony to reinforce her message; repeatedly, the reader sees their disastrous short-sightedness.  At one point, Charles is amazed at how quickly a forest is removed by a few men with axes and he momentarily questions the vulnerability of the forest but quickly decides, “No, the forest returned with vigor, resprouted from cut stumps, cast seeds, sent out mother roots from which new trees grew.  These forests could not disappear.  In New France they were vast and eternal” (118).  A hundred years later, a Duke descendant says, “’Take what we can get as soon as we can get it is what I say.  I am not interested in fifty years hence as there is no need for concern.  The forests are infinite and permanent’” (364).  Years later, the observation is made that “’So extensive are the forests here that Americans cannot see an end to them.  Therefore, they have no interest in preserving them’” (480).  And then attention turns to the Amazon and a character can be heard to say, “’The tropical forests are the most wondrous forests I ever saw. . . . I take comfort in the thought that none of them can really harm the massive heart of the world. The rain forest is so large and rich it defeats all who try to conquer it’” (646).

The greed of the white man is mentioned again and again.  His actions are justified with Christian rhetoric:  “the White Man who struggles and strives to reduce the Forest’s grip has exerted his God-given Right to claim the cleared Land as his own.  By virtue of the suffering of Indian Attack and severe Labor as well as the adversities of removing from their Homelands to take up a Place in the Wilderness it is the Destiny of the French to hold this Land as they have earned moral Title to it from God” (180).  An employee comments on Duke & Sons:  “Not for the first time he saw the acquisitive hunger of Duke & Sons was so great they intended to clear the continent.  And he was helping them.  He hated the American clear-cut despoliation, the insane wastage of sound valuable wood, the destruction of the soil, the gullying and erosion, the ruin of the forest world with no thought for the future – the choppers considered the supply to be endless – there was always another forest.  Rapine had been a force in the affairs of Duke & Sons since its beginnings” (466). 

Contrasted with the white attitude towards the forests is that of the First Nations peoples:  “’The Indians were better managers of the forest . . . They were very good observers of water, weather, all animals and growing things.  And they forbore to cut lavishly.  They used many parts of many trees for different tools and medicines’” (481).  Unfortunately, the deep respect the aboriginal peoples have for the forest does not save the trees and does not save them either.  The wilderness dwindles and they are physically and culturally annihilated.  Achille Sel talks about how the forest changes once cutting begins:  “The forest began to alter in small ways.  It still lived but it was not what it had been.  Few noticed.  The forest was a grand resource and it was both the enemy and wealth.  Achille felt it was the same with the Mi’kmaq; the white settlers used them and took them down” (196).

A novel covering three centuries is bound to have deaths.  Proulx has a penchant for gruesome endings; in this novel, characters frequently die violent deaths, often totally unexpectedly.  People die because of various diseases (cholera, smallpox, cancer), shipwreck, scalping, fire, accident, infection, and assassination.  There is even an instance of cannibalism. 

Fortunately, there are some comedic episodes to relieve the seriousness.  Charles Duquet buys an absurdly big wig while visiting France, and it causes laughter even years later.  The entire chapter describing Captain James Duke and his relationship with Posey Breeley Brandon is full of humour. 

I grew up on the Madawaska River (mentioned on page 314) where lumbering was a way of life and I have many relatives who could have been called barkskins so the continent-wide history of the logging industry was of particular interest to me.  Recently, my husband and I camped in Marten River Provincial Park where there is a replica of a 19th-century logging camp and some remnant stands of massive pines including a 350-year-old White Pine along a hiking trail. 

There were times, however, when my interest waned.  There was detailed discussion of advances in woodworking technology which bored me.  And the various business dealings of Duke & Sons could be tiresome.   At times, a didactic tone prevailed:  “’Humans now outnumber every mammalian form of life that has ever existed.  Maybe unstoppable.  We have nightmares about oceanic currents and sea star die-off, melting ice, more violent winter storms.  And we think about forest degradation.  Forest, the beginning and likely end’” (698).  This tone is totally unnecessary to convey Proulx’s environmental message.

As I was reading this book, I often found myself humming Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”:  “They took all the trees/And put 'em in a tree museum/And they charged the people/A dollar and a half to seem 'em”.  And though I enjoyed the book, there is an inescapable irony:  so many trees died to print copies of this lengthy tome about the wanton destruction of our forests.