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)”
Barkskins 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.
Reviewed by Sarah Forster
by Annie Proulx
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd