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Last Updated on January 13, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1884

Author: Annie Proulx (b. 1935)

Publisher: Scribner (New York). 736 pp.

Type of work: Novel

Time: 1693–2013

Locales: France; New France (Canada); Nova Scotia; Maine; Boston; Netherlands; China; Germany; New Zealand; Brazil; Chicago; Michigan.

In Barkskins, author Annie Proulx addresses the destruction of the world’s forests over a three-hundred-year period, tracing the descendants of two men who arrive in New France (Canada) as indentured servants and choose opposite paths. One family becomes a powerful aggressor in the timber industry while the other struggles to live a more peaceful existence closer to nature and the trees.

Principal characters

René Sel, an indentured servant and dedicated woodsman; he marries his master’s Mi’kmaw concubineCourtesy of Simon & Schuster

Charles Duquet (Duke), an indentured servant who flees servitude and founds a timber company

Achille Sel, grandson of René who suffers at hands of colonists but keeps Mi’kmaw traditions alive

Kuntaw Sel, Achille’s son

James Duke, Charles’s great-grandson, the leader in family timber business

Lavinia Duke, daughter of James who takes over the Duke empire and furthers the company using her excellent business sense

Barkskins is Annie Proulx’s fifth, and arguably most ambitious novel. She chronicles the expansion of timber production and the destruction of the world’s forests through a Dickensian, multigenerational epic following one family that pursues deforestation for money and power, and another family whose land and livelihood are destroyed and must fight to retain their traditions. Many characters filter through Barkskins—some have a large presence in the story, while others are brief sketches—but the one constant and Proulx’s lyrical prose allows her to take the somewhat dry topic of forest destruction and turn it into an epic drama of three hundred years of plundering forests in pursuit of money and power while others fight to keep the forests and their traditions alive. Though the novel is not without flaws in pacing and characterization, it is ambitious in the most genuine sense, tackling a difficult and immense subject successfully.

The novel begins with the stories of two indentured servants from France: Charles Duquet and René Sel. Though they come from different backgrounds, both agree to immigrate to New France (Canada) with a plan to work hard for a master who will, after three years’ time, reward their efforts with land of their own. Neither man gets what he bargained for. Duquet, a sickly, secretive, and resentful young man, flees after several days, reneging on his contract. He disappears from the narrative for a while and when readers catch up with him, he is working as a furrier. He schemes and manipulates others in the quest to create and build his own lumber business.

The other man, Sel, a quiet, hard-working woodsman, is diligent and conscientious. His master, Monsieur Claude Trépagny refuses to release Sel from his contract or give him his promised land after Sel completes his three years of work. When Trépagny’s new, rich wife objects to his Native American (Mi’kmaw) concubine, Mari, he forces Sel to marry Mari. The novel traces the lives and descendants of these two men and their relationships with the forest. Sel, by marrying a Mi’kmaw, comes to foster a legacy of appreciation for the riches of the land and encourages an understanding of how those riches might be used without decimating them.

The Duquet line sees the land’s business potential and cuts trees despite the cost to the environment. Duquet eventually anglicizes his last name, changing it to Duke, and through a number of international deals and contracts, establishes his Duke and Sons timber company into an empire in its own right. Though members of each family rarely, if ever, meet or interact, but they remain in a symbolic conflict throughout the novel. In this way, Sel and Duquet represent two paths of conservation and destruction. The characters of subsequent generations are individualized and varied, but generally stay on their family’s path, escalating the conflict from generation to generation. Annalisa Quinn, in her review of Barkskins for NPR, noted that Proulx also explores the ways in which heritage creates destiny.

It is not only the human characters, however, who are symbolic and compelling. Similar to Proulx’s novel The Shipping News (1993), based in Newfoundland, and well-known short story “Brokeback Mountain (1997),” based in Wyoming, Proulx makes the setting a character as well. In Barkskins, Proulx focuses on the ever-diminishing trees. By killing off characters generation after generation, often by violent means, it is often not the people that are memorable but the trees they are fighting over. Early in the novel they are described as “evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock. The monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage.” The forest is at once beautiful and menacing; more than one character dies in or because of the forest. The trees are ever-present in the novel in one form or another, needed and cherished by the Sels, who roam farther and farther looking for forest and land to preserve their way of life, and coveted by the Duquets, who roam farther and farther searching for forests to conquer.

Characterization is one of the strongest elements of the novel and where Proulx, is most consistently successful. Through the Sel family, Proulx illustrates the suffering that American Indian and First Nations peoples endured as they were forced off their land, lost their homes, and became the victims of violent and racist hatred. Achille Sel attempts to live fully as a Mi’kmaw, following the traditions of hunting and relying on herbs and plants of the forest for food and medicine. Returning from a trip into the forest, Achille finds his home ravaged and his wife killed at the hands of colonists who wanted their land. Achille leaves his nephew and son, Kuntaw, behind, promising to send for them. Although he hopes to recover from the tragedy and return, many obstacles (including racism) make his return difficult, and as more land disappears to the timber industry, he wanders farther and farther away from his home. Through the character of Achille, Proulx shows not only the impact of the forest’s destruction, but how the Mi’kmaw traditions were continually disrespected and ignored. The colonists insist that the only proper use of land is to clear it for timber and farm it, rather than roam and hunt. Kuntaw Sel demonstrates another side of race politics of the time. He abandons his wife and child for a métis woman who wants Kuntaw to solidify her Mi’kmaw side. She later abandons him. Eventually, the Sel descendants are forced to relocate to harsh and obscure places to survive.

Duke and Sons continues to grow, tackling the forests of Canada and the United States, as well as those of New Zealand, Germany, China, and eventually the Amazon. Much of the novel follows Duquet’s descendants on ship voyages and treacherous journeys around the world in pursuit of wood and wealth. One of the most dynamic characters in the Duquet line is Lavinia Duke, who takes over the Duke empire during the era of steam and machinery. She is headstrong and business savvy and ruthlessly pursues the company’s survival and expansion, which translates to ruthless deforestation. Throughout the book, but in the nineteenth century portion in particular, Proulx indicts not only individual behaviors, but capitalism as a whole for its role in the degradation of the world’s forests

While numerous characters are richly conveyed and have true complexity, quite a few also fall short of that ideal, especially the characters presented after the turn of the twentieth century, many of whom appear so briefly that they are more sketch than three-dimensional character. While the first portion of the book has been both praised and criticized for different attributes, the last 150 pages of the novel are didactic and have been uniformly maligned by critics as being dour and overly preachy.

While earlier sections delve deeply into character and history within the forest industry, later sections are sketchy on character, rushed on plot, and more intent on teaching lessons on environmental injustice. Sapatisia Sel, for example, descended from the only line in the story where the Sels (Kuntaw, great-grandson of René Sel) and Duquets (Beatrix, granddaughter of Charles Duquet) marry. Sapatisia, described as intense, obsessive, and happy only in nature, is forced to leave college when an intense relationship unravels, and she seeks refuge in Nova Scotia with her Mi’kmaw relatives. She is presented as a one-woman dynamo, working tirelessly for the environment, yet little of her backstory is told. She was married to another environmentalist, divorced, taught at a university, and then quit. There is little explanation as to why she married and divorced or what was unsatisfying about teaching, yet Proulx describes the details of her current projects and the importance of her environmental work. At the end of the novel, when Sapatisia, sets up an environmental research team to record changes in the forest, it is more lesson and plot point than substance. While most critics praise the novel and admire Proulx’s writing style and ecological position, they also point to these problems of didacticism and characterization.

Overall, however, there is much to admire in Proulx’s ability to sustain such a lengthy and weighty narrative. Barkskins both reckons with humanity’s responsibility for current ecological problems and fills a void in literary fiction. Similar contemplations of human effects on the environment have generally existed in speculative fiction or sci-fi, but Proulx does something unique by both looking to the past, instead of the future, and for remaining within literary fiction and not branching out into genre. Proulx captivates readers with her lyrical prose, compelling topic, and mostly well-drawn characters, including the forest itself. When new indentured servant Charles Duquet asks how big the forest is, he is told, “It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no ending and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension.” As forests continue to disappear, their end is in sight, and with this novel, Proulx raises a rousing, epic rallying cry.

Review Sources

  • Battersby, Eileen. “Barkskins by Annie Proulx: A Trite Caper of Eco-Calamity.” Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Irish Times, 24 June 2016. Accessed on 11 Sept. 2016.
  • Charles, Ron. “Annie Proulx’s Long-awaited, Spectacular New Novel Barkskins.” Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Washington Post, 6 June 2016. Accessed on 11 Sept. 2016.
  • Cummins, Anthony. “Barkskins Review—A Grisly Tale of Chopping Down People and Trees.” Guardian, 19 June 2016. Accessed on 11 Sept. 2016.
  • Finch, Charles. “Annie Proulx’s Epic Barkskins Has Urgent Message.” Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx. USA Today, 13 June 2016. Accessed on 11 Sept. 2016.
  • Quinn, Annalisa. “Annie Proulx’s Barkskins Is Lovely, Dark, and Deep.” Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx. NPR, 18 June 2016. Accessed on 11 Sept. 2016.
  • Vollmann, William T. “‘Barkskins,’ by Annie Proulx.” Review of Barkskins by Annie Proulx. New York Times, 18 June 2016. Accessed on 11 Sept. 2016.

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