Book report: Barkskins by Annie Proulx

BarkskinsBarkskins by Annie Proulx

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In 1693 René Sel and Charles Duquet sail from Europe to the New World to become indentured servants to Claude Trépagny, a tree cutter in what would later become Canada. René stays at his job longer than his contract called for, taken advantage of by his master. Claude runs away into the impenetrable forest on the first day and is assumed to have died.

René marries a Mi’kmaq (First Nation) woman who had been the mistress of Trépagny. Duquet escapes and becomes a ruthless trader and builds an empire on the lumber business. We then follow the fortunes of the two lineages all the way into the 20th century comparing the tough times of the Sel family as the Europeans take away everything from the Mi’kmaq people to the prosperity of the Duquet (later to become Duke) empire. There are cross relations between the families which the Dukes fight against. If you are interested you can track the relationships through a Sel and Duquet family trees at the end of the novel. Somehow, I suppose, there is a forced happy ending as the two families (I think) work together.

After reading That Old Ace in the Hole and The Shipping News by Annie Proulx and diving into the first section of this novel I was confident I had a great read in my hands. Unfortunately it falls apart as the story progresses. The first section of the book was engrossing with rich, detailed descriptions of the forests and the people who tried to tame it. But as it progressed through generation after generation with mean rich people and suffering First Nation people it got preachy and weary. It just goes on and on until I lost interest in the plot and the remote interconnectedness of the families.

Parts of the story are stilted as Proulx tries to convey historical events through unrealistic extended dialog between characters. We are hammered at over and over again about how clear cutting is terrible (which it is). It is clear that bad people sucdeed and good people suffer.

Reading one paragraph I was reminded of the scene in The Jerk when Steve Martin is leaving and says “all I need is” and walks away with more than he can handle: “James closed the account book. Posey had become almost frugal in her expenditures. For himself, beyond his cigars, presents for Lavinia [daughter], decent port and a very occasional waistcoat, he spent little money – except for new horseflesh.” [Loc 6341] Maybe this is supposed to be humorous but to be it came off as contradictory.

Nevertheless Proulx is a good writer; I’m a sucker for similes and there are some great ones in this novel.
– “Anguish and rage migled in her like a kind of soup made from nettles and grit.” [Loc 2201]
– “Amsterdam had swollen like a cracker in hot milk” [Loc 3445]
– “After the funerals weeks passed, dragging their crippled hours like chains.” [Loc 5793]
– “wearing a heavy grey sweater that looked like it had been knitted from fog and briars” [Loc 9885]

Maybe I’m wrong. This was an Amazon book of the month in June 2016 and enjoys a 4 star rating there. John Freeman of the Boston Globe calls it extraordinary, enthralling, and a masterpiece.

[Note: my e-Book had only locations – no pages so referring to the quotes in a printed edition will be difficult.]

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