BARKSKINS, by Annie Proulx. Scribner, 717 pp. $32.
Annie Proulx, already a winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for “The Shipping News,” and celebrated for her other novels and short stories (among them “Brokeback Mountain”) returns now, at 81, with “Barkskins,” a fifth novel that surpasses them all. Covering more than 300 years, its 700-plus pages are a heartbreaking eulogy for the vanished forests and peoples of North America. The novel also ventures abroad to lay waste to the earth from South America to New Zealand. In the course of all this, it follows the fates of eight generations of two families whose first fathers came from France at the end of the 17th century to settle in what is today Canada.
They are René Sel and Charles Duquet, both men indentured to work for Claude Trépagny, whom the French king has granted large tracts of land. René stays, clearing the forest for crops, building shelters and eventually marrying Mari, his master’s Native American concubine, thus establishing the Sel family line. Charles, on the other hand, runs away and becomes a fur trader before turning his titanic energy to the timber industry and changing his surname to “Duke.” He founds a dynasty whose story unfolds as a dark rhapsody on human inventiveness, presumption and the capitalist’s insatiable appetite for expansion and gain.
In contrast, the fate of the Sels remains tangled with that of Mari’s people, the Mi’kmaq, with whom they continue to marry or mate. Their lives are shaped by a doomed struggle to preserve Native American culture and its relationship to nature. Generations of Sels become lumberjacks and log drivers, both arduous, itinerant occupations subject to gruesome injuries and fatalities.
Proulx’s familiar preoccupations are present here in profusion: bloodlines, blows of fate, the arcana and argot of various trades, the immensity and diversity of the natural world and, of course, despoliation and greed. A multitudinous cast of characters troops through the novel, the personality and appearance of each portrayed with Dickensian exuberance: René Sel’s great-great grandson, Jinot, has hair “thick and springy as a bear’s pelt” and “a face with something of a mink’s eager expression.” A “hard-nosed Maine man” “seemed to have started life as an ash tree, barked, scraped and whittled down to sinewy fiber.” And a logging boss is “a block of muscle, with a knife-scarred face and whiskers like pinfeathers.” One of the novel’s most powerful figures is the sixth-generation Lavinia Duke, a post-Civil War business genius and the equal of the original Duke for ruthlessness and foresight. It is she who makes a discovery that jeopardizes the Duke family’s inheritance, a plot twist that snaps taut at novel’s end.
Proulx exercises as punishing a hand with her characters as she ever has, relentlessly subjecting them to swindles, calamity and bereavement. At the same time, the toll their united activities have taken on the environment is even more stunning. Justified initially as obedience to God’s will, that rationale easily mutates into the capitalist dynamic of which the Duke family is avatar. Over the decades, their operations take down the great forests from Canada to New England on to Michigan, ever westward, heedless of waste: “There were so many trees, what did it matter? . . . The slash and chips from the hewers’ axes was knee-high.”
Dark irony abounds, not least in the rebellious American colonists portraying themselves as “homines sylvestris — men of the forest” and linking “the idea of freedom to a country of wild forests” — even as they decimated the trees. While, later, it’s pretty rich to witness the Dukes’ outrage at timber poachers (“human locusts”) and, later, newly arrived settlers (“human birds of prey”) tearing down forests to create farms, believing “it is their right to take whatever is there in this land of plenty.” A vision of Europeans as an invasive species permeates the novel and gradually expands to include the human race as a whole. Toward novel’s end, environmentalists begin to emerge, one of whom observes that “humankind is evolving into a terrible new species and I am sorry I am one of them.”
The novel’s scope is huge and encompassing, its vision panoramic at times, at others focused minutely on all the doings and undoings of individuals: those left ravaged by the destruction of their way of life, and those engaged in the business enterprise at the heart of this book, from logging camp and river transport to sawmill on up to the boardroom. The novel is quite simply tremendous and, of Annie Proulx’s many fine works, “Barkskins” stands, in my view, as her masterpiece.
Annie Proulx will be in conversation with Adam Gopnik on Tuesday, June 14 at 8 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., Manhattan. Tickets $24 and up; 212-415-5500, 92y.org