Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Barkskins is a novelized history of the people who’ve worked the forests of North America for the last 400 years. Annie Proulx is best known for her short story Brokeback Mountain, which became a movie by the same name, about gay cowboys in Montana. That credit solidifies her as a talent for depicting the lives of hard-working men, but it also solidifies her as a short story writer. And Barkskins, with its vast timeline and cruel character turnover, reads more like a book of short stories than a novel.

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(Photo: Amy Attas)

The book begins with Rene Sel, a low-class Frenchman who’s arrived in New France ignorant and indentured to a seigneur. He works every day for room and board, cutting back the thick dark forest that swallows men whole, hacking and slashing to make space for a farm, room to breathe. But before long he has lived a long life and died – because this book has to move if it’s going to reach the 21st Century, and because life was pretty brutal in 1660 near Montreal.

Proulx does a good job at first, of passing the story to a new protagonist who readers have already met and grown interested in – Sel’s workmate in the woods, Charles Duquet/Duke. But the longer the book traces down the family trees of the two men, the harder it is to keep track of each new character’s motivations. The drama continues, and each chapter is a self-contained soap opera, but the forest and genealogy aren’t enough to string the tales together. The pacing is rushed and the story myopic, as if reading four hundred years of history through a set of microscope slides. And at over 700 pages the story is reminiscent of Wilke Collins’ The Woman in White, which has enough twists and turns to stay captivating but at some point makes readers wonder – shouldn’t this be over by now? Wilke Collins was getting paid by the word, and his novel was serialized, released in a magazine over months. What is Annie Proulx’s excuse?

Nevertheless, Barkskins is a fresh take on colonization, and watching the steady push of deforestation from New France to the west lends emotional weight to well-trod history. There’s a decent look at Indigenous resettlement, with a few Mi’kmaw men taking the reins of the story as they fight to preserve their land, livelihood and culture, but their pages are brief in comparison to their white counterparts, and the story lacks credibility. Proulx brings in the term “two-spirit” as if to prove her research, misunderstanding that “two-spirit” is a modern word for an old idea, so her research is incomplete. There’s also little mention of the African slave trade, making this very much a colonizer’s view of colonization.

Still, I’m a sucker for stories about trees, and Proulx gives the forests and the bark skins – the people whose hands turn rough working with trees – a poetic rendering.

“Violent maples flared against the black spruce. Rivers of birds on their great autumnal journeys filled the skies – Hudsonian godwits, whole nations of hawks, countless black warblers – paruline rayée – looking like tiny men with their black berets, chalky faces and dark mustache streaks, cranes, longspurs, goldeneyes, loons, sparrows, flycatchers, warblers, geese. The first ice storm came one night in October. Then the world pressed flat, snow hissing in the spruce needles, the sun dimmed by a grisaille wash. The forest clenched into itself as though inhaling a breath.”

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