As with people, so with books, sometimes the best thing is the worst thing.
The best thing about “Barkskins,” Annie Proulx’s hefty fifth novel, is its ambition, sweep and scope. The worst thing: its ambition, sweep and scope.
Tellingly, the novel is driven not so much by character but idea, or in this case, attitude.
The attitude is the rapacious treatment of the forest as something to be exploited. To flip a cliché, in this novel it is hard to see the trees, the characters, for the forest, the abstract idea.
Beginning in 1693 and ending more than 300 years later, in 2013, “Barkskins” tells the stories of two families: the Duquets, later Dukes, and the Sels.
Charles Duquet and René Sel are Frenchmen, transplanted as woodcutters, or barkskins, to New France, now Canada. Both are indentured to a feudal lord, or seigneur. The seigneur proclaims to René, who asks why they must cut the forest: “… we are here to clear the forest, to subdue this evil wilderness.”
To become a landowner in his own right, René is forced by the seigneur to marry an older native woman, Mari, renowned for knowing the curative qualities of plants. Though forced, René’s relationship with Mari “became a marriage of intelligences as well as bodies.”
Charles Duquet runs away from the cruel seigneur. He studies the ways of those more prosperous than himself and learns to read. He acquires ivory teeth and a weighty wig. Fueled by a deep sense of inferiority, he lusts for power: “He wanted great and permanent wealth, wealth for a hundred years. He wanted a fortune to pass on to his sons. He wanted his name on buildings.”
Unlike the wily Charles, René feels himself to be “caught in the sweeping current of events he was powerless to escape.” Despite that feeling, he works hard, has children and comports himself with dignity.
Charles Duquet becomes Charles Duke, transforming himself from woodcutter to fur trader to international trader to timber business magnate. His heirs acquire land and level it of forest, thought to be infinitely renewable. Though wealthy, they never quite lose the rough exterior of their founder.
The Sels are métis, part French, part members of the Mi’kmaw tribe. They go from living in harmony with the earth’s resources to being forced by harsh economic reality into jobs as woodcutters and river men herding logs downriver.
This novel takes the characters across a vast geographical range that encompasses Canada, Boston, China, Maine, Michigan, Chicago, Nova Scotia and New Zealand. One story is the degradation of the forest by the greedy Dukes; the other, the dwindling of a way of life and people, embodied in the Sels. The Dukes go from lumber to, finally, plywood. The Sels go from hunters to native guides for white men who view hunting as play, not work.
Proulx punctuates this serious arc with moments of high hilarity. The Dukes are often the subject of almost Dickensian satire. The 19th century sees James Duke, consigned as a lad to be a midshipman by a father who blames him for his mother’s death in childbirth, become heir to half this father’s fortune. En route to Boston, he is fished from the sea when he topples into the water near shore by one Posey Brandon, a woman who demonstrates “the strength of two men.”
James stealthily gets rid of Posey’s addled minister husband and is scandalized by the “tigress” he has married. Their daughter, Lavinia, born to the robust Posey when she is 51, rises to the top to become the most ruthless head in the company’s history.
Although Proulx often holds her characters at arm’s length and commits some formulaic writing when introducing minor characters more as caricatures, she writes about nature with respect. Particularly when she is describing the night sky, her prose breaks through into poetry: “The moon was a slice of white radish, the shadows of incomparable blackness.”
This beauty, like the forest, is always in danger. The constancy of nature, like that of humans, is frail. Proulx writes ambitiously about the power and weakness of place and people.
This historical novel is as sweeping, and as flawed, as its subjects. The reader feels well-educated, but somewhat exhausted, at novel’s end.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie of Topeka is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.
“Barkskins,” by Annie Proulx (Scribner; 717 pages; $32)