Annie Proulx’s new novel, “Barkskins,” follows two French immigrants as they discover the sweep of America’s forests, and as their descendants confront their limitations.
‘Barkskins: A Novel’
by Annie Proulx
Scribner, 736 pp., $32
Annie Proulx’s novel “Barkskins” opens as two Frenchmen who have signed on as indentured servants first encounter the dense woods of the New World. The year is 1693, the location present-day Quebec, where spruce and hemlock crowd together in stands so tall and thick that the newcomers are cast in gloomy darkness.
“How big is the forest?” one of them timidly inquires of their new master.
“It is infinite,” he declares. “It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning.”
The author of “Barkskins” will appear at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 23, at the Temple De Hirsch Sinai as part of the Seattle Arts and Lecture series. Tickets are $5-$90; for more information go to lectures.org or call 206-621-2230.
Irony and foreshadowing are laced in this unblinking, unthinking statement as Proulx, best known for her award-winning novel “The Shipping News” and the story-turned-movie “Brokeback Mountain,” begins her 700-plus-page takedown of the American timber industry — a book that will be well received in the trendy Seattle area, where Proulx currently lives, but less so in Weyerhaeuser country.
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With Dickensian sprawl, “Barkskins” covers the disparate lives of the families spawned by the two penniless immigrants, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, to describe how our vast forests were decimated in a gradual march westward. But the heart of the book lies in its Northeastern corner, where Sel becomes a simple woodsman and marries his master’s common-law wife, Mari, a Mi’kmaq Indian woman and healer. His lineage will work the woods while mourning its destruction.
Duquet, who is introduced as a sore-toothed, whimpering runaway, quickly intuits that he can become rich from buying the land that’s filled with big trees. His egocentric character, and Proulx’s disdain for the capitalist soul, is revealed when he travels to China in order to launch his timber enterprise.
Although he admires the highly stylized gardens created to replicate that country’s vanished forests — the chord of irony sounds here, too — he “did not quite see the garden as itself; in his mind he regarded it as though he were suspended some distance above and looking down at himself walking along the mosaic paths. His presence in such a curious place made it notable to him.”
His company, Duquet et Fils, morphs into an Anglicized version, Duke & Sons, relocating to Boston. So begins the period in which vast tracts of ancient forest are turned into stumps, and sawdust clogs the rivers. The loggers and lumbermen seldom flinch. Nor do their government interlocutors.
The Duke family’s dull boardroom types fade beneath its strivers and connivers, including the social-climbing interloper Posey Breeley Brandon and her coldhearted daughter, Lavinia. Lavinia’s husband, the conscientious German Dieter Breitsprecher, tries to steer her toward modern conservation practices. It’s a no-go: Like her great-great-grandfather, she’s all about the money.
Meanwhile, the Sel clan is most poignantly represented by Jinot, whose nomadic existence in the logging camps speaks to the dislocation of native people and their way of life.
“Barkskins” — a title that refers to all who have some communion with trees — leaves no board unturned as it covers the industry that brought us plywood, cheap paper and prefab housing. This puts pressure on the dialogue, which sometimes sounds less like people in conversation than narrators on the History Channel. But this occasional flatness is a peccadillo that’s swept aside by Proulx’s stunning stylistic gifts. She is a writer’s writer, and one whose deep interest in history provides the long view of how our environmental recklessness has brought us to a point of reckoning.
“Forest, the beginning and likely end”: This is the book’s epitaph, spoken by a descendant of the awe-struck immigrants who arrived three centuries earlier. The trees, it turns out, are even more valuable than those early lumbermen ever knew.