Book Review: Barkskins (Annie Proulx)

Barkskins: A Novel is a sweeping saga recounting the ecological costs of progress. Forests are destroyed and Native Americans are marginalized. Reminiscent of James Michener’s “Centennial” the author reminds us that this land is only ours to borrow and pass down to succeeding generations.

Two illiterate woodsmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in “New France” in the 17th Century only to endure extraordinary hardship as indentured servants. The goal is to work for 3 years in exchange for a plot of land. Sel is forced to marry a Mi’kmaq Indian and becomes a barkskin or wood cutter. Duquet escapes, travels the world, and starts a logging empire.

Duquet researches the timber trade learning the value of white pine trees to the Europeans. Duke & Sons Logging Co. is established. The Dukes realize that the forest is not eternal but deforestation still occurs as new settlers set fires to clear land. Only a small amount of forest becomes usable lumber. Most forest land is burned or abandoned in the name of progress as settlers build log cabins and RR ties are cut to build a transcontinental railroad.

Rene Sel and his descendants carve out a meager existence. Hunting places are destroyed, and the salmon rivers are clogged with logs and sawdust. Medicinal healing plants are destroyed as the forests are pushed back. To survive, the Mi’kmaq must take jobs the white men don’t want. They become wood choppers and loggers. They are considered to be disposable labor, good as long as they last.

Annie Proulx gives us a detailed, extensively researched look into deforestation and the destruction of the Native American way of life. Proulx reminds us that we must find ways to renew our forests. I highly recommend this tome.

Thank you to Net Galley for an advanced digital copy of Barkskins.

Credit: Native American Loggers

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