A Review: Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Recently, my partner and I ventured on a roadtrip up from Georgia (US) to Boston with various stops along the way. I enjoy roadtrips more than anyone I know, having made that trip more than twice in the past few years as well as some lonesome trips out west. Perhaps what I enjoy most of all is knowing how all the roads connect together and discovering new ones. Upon suggestion of the fated Atlanta-Boston trip, my partner groaned his way to agreement and I think, now that it is over, he was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed himself. With two puppers in the car and a potential grumpkin, I knew that an audiobook would be the perfect solution.

Before we set out, I started Annie’s Proulx’s ‘new’ book titled Barkskins. While I have enjoyed all of the Annie Proulx I previously read, I was a little hesitant about this one in particular. Spanning generations from 1693 in the Canadian woods to modern day Chicago, it caps out at 713 pages. Now, I’m the last one to shy away from a marathon read but this pick in particular was possibly more than I had bargained for. And it was the beginning of the book that lead me to suggest it for roadside listening with my partner, who enjoys the difficult hobby of woodworking.

Annie Proulx’s exemplary use of the English language in gliding sentences that could seem a song on the wind drew him in immediately and we enjoyed most of car ride there and back within the story of multiple generations and their tree-tied fate. Beginning with two immigrants into ‘The New World’, we followed the duty-ridden story of Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, uneducated workers from France who upon arrival at the Canadian shores find themselves aghast at the vast and unending forests.

The air was intensely aromatic. Fallen needles muted their passage, the interlaced branches absorbed their panting breaths. Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen in the old country for hundreds of years, evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage. (4)

Thus it begins in those trees with these two men, Rene with his commitment to duty and Charles with his keen sense of opportunity, each overcoming their own unique obstacles as the story unfolds. Proulx intertwines the stories of these two men with the culture of a Canadian native tribe called the Mi’kmaw. While I admire her dedication to historical truth the novel itself pays homage to the supreme tragedy of white settlers claiming native land for their own and it sparked within me a true sense of loss for these people, confused and starving with no culture or space to truly call their own.

Barkskins also follows the success and failures of a logging company built by Charles Duquet and his following non-blood related generations. This, one of the more interesting parts of the novel to my partner, was fascinating for me as well. Proulx not only builds a successful company through the hard work of her characters but also takes the unusual leap to place non-traditional archetypes in positions of power; a brilliant woman so supremely ahead of her time, and a pragmatic closeted gay man who dared to try to live the life most fulfilling for him despite the deadly risk. These were in fact most refreshing and something I did not expect to be explored within the outlined eras but fit perfectly within Proulx’s writing.

I did however, notice a point in which the novel seemed to come to it’s natural end and I wonder if Proulx herself paused at the end of that sentence. The rest of the book seems like an afterthought from an editor saying, it can’t just end like that. But I rather like to think it did end right there and the rest of the family relatives faded into the distance of unwritten history like so many of the unheard ancestors of our modern world.

Thoughts?

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