Book Review – Barkskins – Annie Proulx
- Book: Barkskins
- Author: Annie Proulx
- Genre: Fiction
- Year of Release: 2016
- Read 721-page hardcover edition in August 2016.
This epic drama follows the 300-year, multi-generational history of two families. The beginnings of the novel trace two men who travel from Europe to New France (present day Canada), and who begin to build a life for themselves as settlers in this new world. Their families take different twists and turns.
One man, Duke, ends up founding a large forestry corporation that the reader sees develop in North America and with developments around the world over the course of the novel. The second man, Sel, ends up partnering with a local Aboriginal woman, and so we see the development of a Metis family that has members close to the land and close to forestry, depending on which generation and which person we are focusing on.
As the families stories weave together and intertwine over the generations, so to the reader sees how individuals from Europe affected the Indigenous populations of North America, and affected the forests around the world with development, deforestation, and the industrial revolution.
This novel has been called a crown jewel for Annie Proulx, the writer of Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News. At over 700 pages with many characters and spanning many generations, it is certainly an epic piece. And as I read the novel, I was pleased to see that the praise for the novel is well founded. Proulx does an amazing job with character development, story development, and exciting plot. She also wisely includes family trees to help the reader keep track of the families and characters.
The novel never feels long, because we are moving across 300 years of history. In some ways it is like a collection of connected stories, where we get to know characters, some good and some bad, and then we move on to another time and see the progeny of that generation continue the story. The way Proulx sometimes brings the two families together is also an interesting and creative touch, particularly towards the end. The ability of Proulx to create multi-faceted characters that we can care about, or despise, sometimes both, demonstrates her writing skill.
One character of considerable interest is Lavinia, a female who takes a leadership role in the Duke family forestry company. Proulx shows us through this character how someone of Lavinia’s time period thinks and feels, and also allows us into other relates issues of the time period, in this case the early development of equal rights for women. Lavinia is a great example of a strong, interesting character, who Proulx is also not afraid to show imperfections as well.
Proulx does a great job of showcasing and highlighting a variety of themes and problems of the time, including the treatment of Indigenous peoples, classism, racism, capitalism, and the lack of reforestation efforts as forests are destroyed around everyone. At the same time, she creates characters who are never black and white, ensuring a complex and thoughtful read.
At times the novel does feel a bit weighted down by the sheer volume of characters and story going on, but for the most part Proulx does a wonderful job of taking an important, timely topic like deforestation, and trying to explain the concept through a variety of human eyes.
Proulx also tries to illustrate where this might be going in the final chapters of the novel, forcing the reader to think about the future as well, after an incredible read through the past. Overall, this is definitely a recommended novel.
Overall: 4.5 stars out of 5 stars