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

Barkskins
by Annie Proulx
Published by Fourth Estate Ltd
ISBN  9780008191764

 

 

Book Review: Some Luck, by Jane Smiley

Available in bookstores nationwide.

Some Luck is a vast novel, rivalling the imaginative scale of Game of Thrones, but rather cv_some_luckthan occupying a fictional realm, Smiley sets her story over 33 significant years in the history of the USA.

I was fascinated by the premise of the book – to show how the USA was formed over a century, based on the fate of one family. Smiley has planned three volumes; Some Luck is the first in the series. The novel opens in rural Iowa; a newlywed couple are just beginning their family, and the book starts with the voice of the patriarch, Walter. It is 1920, Walter is 25, and has recently purchased his own land; he is proud of his purchase, but uncertain of how wise land ownership will turn out to be.

The story that follows takes the reader through the modernisation of farming in Iowa so specifically and with such attention to detail that I found myself wishing the book was set in New Zealand so I had closer connections with the setting. As Walter’s children grow up and move across the States, and the world during wartime, we get to know the political history, and experience the evolving fashions, city life, and the growth of suburbia in America. Each chapter spans one year.

Some Luck is told from multiple character viewpoints, including those of babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers, which are often very accurate. One line in particular stuck with me, ‘It was beyond Frank to understand why he sometimes did the very thing he was told not to do. It seemed like once they told him not to do it – once they said it and put it in his mind – then what else was there to do?’ I recognise that entirely from my own children’s behaviour.

Each of Walter and wife Rosanna’s children have their own strong and distinct personalities, covering all points on the spectrum. Across the timeline of the novel their children become adults, marry and have children of their own.

The positive effect of the constantly shifting point of view is that we got to know more than just one story – by the end of the book, there are nine narrators. I found it easy to keep the characters separate as their personalities were distinct, but sometimes it was hard to care for each of them equally. Smiley follows the most fascinating character through each chapter she writes; in the case of war-time, this was of course the character who went to war; in the case of the cold war, likewise the spies and later the commies got a period of narration. The one character I finished the novel without feeling I knew was Rosanna, Walter’s Wife, the matriarch of the family. I found out more about Rosanna from her daughters’ observations of her rather than from her own narrative voice, and the only time I felt like I was really there with her was at the end of the book.

Some Luck is certain to be admired by a broad and diverse audience, and I look forward to the second in the series.

Reviewed by Sarah Forster

Some Luck
by Jane Smiley
Published by Mantle
ISBN 9781447275619