Book Review: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Colonisation – this is why it came about. The Bible says, “God blessed them; and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.'(Genesis 1: 26-28)”

cv_barkskinsBarkskins is a superb novel about forests, those who cut them, those who protect them, and many worlds that have long gone. It takes you hurtling through decades in the lives of the descendents of two men: Rene Sel, and Charles Duquet. Both men come from a labourer’s life in France, brought over by Monsieur Trepagny to clear his land in ‘New France’ – in a region which at that time was part of the Mi’kma’ki lands, though these were contested by the Iroquois. Charles disappears into the woods as soon as he can, while Rene resigns himself to a life as a forester, and is forced to marry a Mi’kmaq woman, Mari. “In every life there are events that reshape one’s sense of existence. Afterward, all is different and the past is dimmed.” This is the beginning of a long line of Sels.

We pick up with Charles at the start of the next section. After being healed of his many infections by some Ojibwa Indians, he decides to go into the fur trade. Wealth from fur trading, particularly in China, leads to his purchase of great forests, and as the chapters on his life end, we see Charles Duquet reform into Charles Duke, and head South into New England to begin a new life with adoptive sons alongside (and a wife safely back in the Netherlands).

As son begets son, begets daughter, I fell in love with many characters, only to have them cruelly wiped out by a forest fire, house fire or sometimes, simply, an infection. Proulx has a gift for giving the perfect deaths to the most awful characters. One particularly petty character was wiped out by a flash frost while on a slow boat on his way back to his daughter. Such a good death. The most surprising death goes to a wife of one of Duquet’s adoptive sons. I won’t say much more than that, but it led to one of the few laugh-aloud moments in the book.

And everything comes back to the forests, the inestimable, ever-lasting forests. Proulx expertly tells these stories of great loss with no emotion, presenting the Native Indian side of the story alongside the ravenous, exploitative colonial side. You mourn the loss of the Native Indian medicinal plants and their native knowledge of how to live off the land; and later, the disgusting way in which they were treated. You mourn as these colonials blindly remove all the life around them, unknowingly destroying the land they have stolen; or taken in exchange for a few kettles, for a few axes.

Indians are seen as wastrels, because of their habit of living in harmony with nature, rather than bending nature to do their bidding. They are slow to take to growing food in gardens, and to farming – and as they are outnumbered due to disease, and have to live by the white men’s rules, and buy their food, they are forced to work for the white men. Throughout the book, we follow many of Sel’s forest-cutting descendents; but always, this work is seen as compromise, and there are sporadic returns to the old hunting grounds, later to the Reservation, to see the changes wreaked. “…they must live in two worlds, they went because inside they carried their old places hidden under the centuries, hidden as beatles under fallen leaves, as pebbles in a closed hand, hidden as memories.”

Every character we encounter tells a piece of the overall arc of story. The most interesting character in feminist terms was Lavinia, as she made great strides forward in being in charge of her destiny, and that of her family. As a woman in business in the 1880’s, she was an enjoyable anomaly. Later, Lavinia’s husband Dieter is the first of several conservationists we encounter in the book: it is through his eyes we begin to understand the changes wrought on the land they have taken.

Barkskins is, without doubt, a master work. I am grateful that Proulx’s publishers trusted her genius wholeheartedly enough to give her the time and space to write this saga. There are so many characters there that we could learn more about, and I’d love to see a follow on story, particularly one involving the formidable Sepatisia.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

by Annie Proulx
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN  9780008191764



Book Review: Waybread & Flax, by Belinda Diepenheim

Available now in selected bookshops nationwide.

cv_waybread_&_flaxSuspending disbelief is something that Belinda Diepenheim has achieved in this clever and intriguing collection, an extension of the manuscript that won her the Kathleen Grattan Award in 2013. Employing the perspectives of the plant world is an ambitious decision, but one that Belinda achieves beautifully.

Plant perception is not a new idea. Even Darwin himself, after investigating climbing plants with his son, concluded that plants, albeit without neurons, can “…receive impressions from the sense-organs…” Some of the scenarios in Waybread bring to mind the archetype of the blind prophet, such as the Bulgarian prophet, Baba Vanga and the idea of the silent observer to our chaos, who has vision, despite a lack of physical sight. Of course, this kind of outsider-looking-in narrative is great for exploring difficult subjects and giving the reader a taste of voyeurism without any added guilt. If offers us a fresh lens through which to see the world. All of this is tempered with a cheeky irreverence, such as the personification of horopito as a dangerous scarlet woman, the femme fatale of the plant world. ‘…hot through and through…”, Get too close, you might die…”

But it’s not all fun and games. Using the narrative device throughout the book enables Belinda to explore observations on colonisation, war and other difficult aspects of history, such as epidemics, through the eyes of the alien (the plant). The other benefit of using this device is that we also get to delve into the rich poetic soil of the botanical world, accompanied by gorgeous full colour plates of botanical illustrations. The title characters, waybread and flax are indicative of some of the subject matter – Waybread being the European import and flax, the symbol of New Zealand indigenous culture. The book is also divided into sections relating to ancient herbal cures. Cook and his imports and also Maori traditional medicines. It is no mistake that Belinda has chosen to focus on the healing and medicinal aspects of plants. The inference here is that, despite the brutality and trauma of our history, both colonisers and indigenous have an incredible potential for healing and co-habitation.

One thing you notice when making your way through the poems is that rain makes a regular appearance in nearly every poem. What could be more symbolic of healing the land? Again, it is woven throughout so as to seem inconsequential, but shows the deft hand of the poet in weaving it through the work. By the last poem, Solanum Laciniatum, Poroporo, we are left with the idea that just like that healing water that ebbs and seeps through “roots, stomata and shoots…”, we too are just passing through. Belinda comments that the next generation will still have:
…their hearts set on land of their own
a mass of dreams that has nothing
to do with reality.

Ultimately, the book ends on the note that it is enough to stand beside, to recognise our lack of ownership and the fleeting nature of our existence.

I stand beside, the tree ferns in the gully below,
the fickle piwakawaka flying
between bush lawyer and supplejack,
were never mine and I must pass
on from this place.
I will reply it was enough.

Reviewed by  Anna Forsyth

Waybread & Flax
by Belinda Diepenheim
Published by Steele Roberts Aotearoa