This is a book I had been looking forward to for a long time. Annie Proulx is one of my favourite writers, and I absolutely adore her gritty all-America postcard novels and short stories, especially her novel “The Shipping News”. When I heard she was releasing an intergenerational saga about deforestation in north America, I was thrilled. The book, when it finally arrived in stores, is an enormous tome beautifully decorated with gold detailing on the front cover.
“Barkskins” by Annie Proulx follows the lives and lineages of two French men who arrive in the new world in the late 1600s to work as indentured woodsmen. Their paths diverge dramatically and the choices they make have drastic repercussions on their progeny for generations. Where one family finds untold wealth among the seemingly endless forest resources of nothern America, the other finds solace among the trees that are slowly but surely disappearing.
This was a very ambitious novel. “Barkskins” is a very well researched attempt to provide the reader with an overview of the social and economic factors that have led to the unprecedented deforestation of the Americas and the marginalisation of its indigenous peoples. However, as a novel, it just didn’t quite work. There were so many characters, but most of them were only fleeting figures in the novel. No sooner had you been introduced to one but they had been killed off and you were onto the next generation. Proulx’s strength is in her intimate snapshots of people’s lives, but this book was like flipping through an family photo album of blurry photographs. There was one point in the book where she was talking about two characters, and between cross-referencing the family tree at the back of the book and flipping through the chapters, I actually could not figure out who they were. I actually think that this book would have been better as a non-fiction. She had all of the material and research, but over 300 years of characters meant that the narrative was just too thinly spread.
“Barkskins” is an important book with strong social and environmental messages. However, it was an incredibly long read and I think it would have been better as non-fiction.