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To Fell a Forest

"Barkskins," Annie Proulx’s first novel in more than a decade, is a sweeping epic told through the history of America’s woodlands.

Yuri Kadobnov/Getty Images

The opening line of Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s first novel in 14 years, mentions how a pair of boys en route to the New World “passed bloody Tadoussac,” leaving the tantalizing adjective unexplained. What eventually becomes clear, however, is that bloodshed, so common in historical literature, has been left behind for a different kind of wounding.

Proulx’s saga, which will consume more than 700 pages, takes as its focus the woodlands and forests of North America. It is about how trees that once “rejected the puny efforts of men” would be demolished as successive generations razed hectares of land and imposed their sense of order upon the entire continent. Barkskins starts off in Quebec so untamed that the French have not yet given it their own spelling. Those two boys, René Sel and Charles Duquet, have come from France and will work three years for Monsieur Trépagny, an established settler and seigneur who prizes their experience in chopping down trees and clearing forests. One boy will run away and eventually start Duquet et Fils, a timber empire (he will later change his name and the company’s to Duke); the other will be forced into marriage to an indigenous Mi’kmaq woman. Both men will sire bloodlines that unfurl across the three centuries that Barkskins chronicles in dazzling detail.

Proulx’s narrative sprawls across the northern reaches of the Americas, and tracks a westward expansion fired by the principle of Manifest Destiny. It stretches to France, England and the Netherlands, from which many of the book’s immigrants hail; to China and the Pacific, where men spend months and years trading furs and establishing commerce; and, as the book meanders toward its final pages, to the reaches of New Zealand and Brazil. “My life has ever been dedicated to the removal of the forest for the good of men,” one man insists as he plans an expansion of the timber industry, suggesting an intractable duality at the heart of Barkskins: a finite natural world and a drove of men intent on harvesting and destroying it for their own benefit.

But Barkskins is not a polemic. The beauty of Proulx’s book is how it illuminates the lives of characters who have been affected by this foundational exploitation. With so many pages, and so many characters, a reader can trace various evolutions of viewpoint, such as on the question of the colonizer’s relation to the colonized. Out of Monsieur Trépagny’s marriage of convenience to a Mi’kmaq woman in 1693 comes the angry righteousness of a character named Felix in 2013, who reproaches his cousin Jeanne: “You don’t think it was a favor for the French and the English to ‘bring’ the Mi’kmaq into their idea of modern life. I know you don’t.” And that is just one connection; hundreds of characters are sketched out as they trace minuscule paths across the large canvas of history.

Many of these not-so-small characters come to bloody ends. Most do, in fact: by fire, by ice, by grisly murder, by their own hand, by sheer stupidity. Medicine, for much of this book’s timeline, was primitive: either rooted in natural herbs and Indian lore or traded away by quack doctors for jenever liquor. Proulx says she researched the book for more than 30 years, and nary a page goes by without a few exquisitely observed historical details. The spellings of various words and places change with the times—Micmac and Mi’kmaq, Kébec and Quebec—while various foodstuffs—syllabub, apple slump, waterzooi, larded capons—make their appearance as culinary fashions come and go over the decades. Sometimes it seems that Proulx is doomed to historical accuracy, in which men must dominate the discourse and action. Even when woman are given prominence (as in the case of René Sel’s Native-American wife Mari), they can only do so much within the social and political climate in which they live.

But this precedent sets the stage for one of Barkskins’s most striking reversals halfway through its pages. The sole union between the Sel and Duquet bloodlines gives rise to two female characters. The first is Posey Breeley Brandon Duke, who gives birth late in life to the second, Lavinia, her only daughter. She dominates the next 200 pages in a bravura performance of raw ambition and ruthless gamesmanship, set in the second half of the nineteenth century. As family members die out or sell out, she becomes the de facto chief of Duke and Sons—“they may have to change their name to Duke and Daughter,” one rival quips—and proves her shrewdness both in ferreting out dangerous threats and defanging them. (Comparisons to Elizabeth I are inevitable, and explicitly made by a historian much later in Barkskins.) Some of the book’s juiciest passages are those in which Lavinia visits various mills or plots of land and tells men who give her trouble, quite simply: “Go now. Now! Or I will fire you from your job.” Her struggles for legitimacy and success are a remarkable rags-to-riches tale. Even as she marries, late in life, a man who should have been her rival, Lavinia proves to be one of the most brilliantly rendered and memorable characters Annie Proulx has ever invented.

At times, especially in the sections where decades are condensed, a reader’s wrists might strain under so many pages. Barkskins is a heavy enough tome that one wonders just how many forests have been cleared for the book’s first printing. But such moments of boredom are rare. Paradoxically, the pages speed by when time is slowed down, because Proulx’s characters are vivid, insistent, captivating. They are hungry for money or romance or power, and that hunger drives them insistently forward. Never are they more fascinating than when she dwells on them and breathes life into their travails.

The temptation to consider Barkskins under the rubric of a Great American Novel is difficult to resist, given its scope. But Proulx’s ambitions seem to be keyed differently. Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Morrison’s Beloved—all of these books might be doomed in their respective attempts to somehow encompass the United States in its full complexity, but they at least focus on that burgeoning and manifold nation. Proulx, in contrast, establishes in Barkskins a narrative so grand in spatial and temporal scope, so broad in theme, that it cannot conceivably be strictly American. Her pitch-perfect sentences, instead, encompass the entire Western world, and its ever-growing concern with ecological and environmental change.

The final pages of Barkskins are set in 2013, and an ecologist muses aloud: “Say there is a particular rare plant that influences the trees and plants near it. Say conditions change and our rare plant goes extinct and its absence affects the remaining plants.” The environmentalist is not hopeful: He is aware that the past weighs heavily on the present, and that the future cannot undo the ruination of the past. Descriptions of melting glaciers and rampant erosion underscore the terrifying prospects of climate change—the result of a consumerism driven by greed. Beneath all the anecdotal and carefully researched strata of Proulx’s saga is a need to remind readers that the world they have seen cut down, page by page, is the world they themselves live in and must tend to. History, indeed, is a nightmare from which we cannot awake—only one from which we can learn.

The two boys introduced in the first pages, René Sel and Charles Duquet, are the book’s eponymous “barkskins”—a word that, at the time, simply meant woodcutters. Proulx, however, dedicates her book to “barkskins of all kinds—loggers, ecologists, sawyers, sculptors, hotshots, planters, students, scientists, leaf eaters, photographers, practitioners of shinrin-yoku, land-sat interpreters, climatologists, wood butchers, picnickers, foresters, ring counters, and the rest of us.” The gesture is unmistakable: Barkskins is a massive book that uproots many stories of the past and the present, but its story has hardly ended. When we turn the final pages, the onus is put upon us to imagine the next chapter of our earth’s ecosystems—a positive and promising and restorative one—and make that ecological possibility a reality.