Annie Proulx’s 700 plus page epic, “Barkskins”, is the complex story of two intersecting families and the multi-level impact of one of the family’s greed driven destruction of the world’s environment. When you consider that the story begins in 1693 and ends in 2013, it is an almost masterly accomplishment that the novel runs only 713 pages.
The story starts in “New France” where Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, both from France, become servants to Monsieur Claude Trepagny. Their job was to cut down trees in the grand natural forest, where forests seemed endless. “Day after day the chopping continued and their hands swelled, blistered, hardened, the rhythm of chopping seized them…” In exchange for three years of labor, Mr. Trepagny was to apportion Rene and Charles parcels of land in the new world. Duquet wanted no part of the indentured labor and ran off into the forest, where Trepagny went to look for him and never returned.
Sel and Duquet’s futures advance in very different directions. Sel married Mari, a Mi’kmaq Indian with 3 children. Mari and Rene had three children of their own and the Sel line of Mi’kmaq descendants became wood cutters, struggling with the loss of their environment in varying ways through the centuries. The Sel family and the Duquet family unknowingly intersect throughout the novel.
Duquet, on the other hand, became a ruthless and opportunistic entrepreneur, taking advantage of the indigenous Indian population by trading liquor for animal pelts and later trading pelts in China. While in China, Duquet becomes obsessed with the forests and the potential for timber. Ultimately, he goes to the colonies and begins acquiring tracts of timberland in Maine and changes his name to Charles Duke. He brings his sons to the colonies to join him in the timber business and so begins the business dynasty of Duke and Sons. When Charles Duke disappears and is never found, his sons take over the business.
The Duke family runs the business through the 21st century. The company dispassionately seeks and destroys forests throughout the world. In the 1800s, James Duke has a significant role with the company and when he suddenly dies, his daughter, Lavinia, takes control of the company, a rare woman in a man’s world. Lavinia is utterly ruthless in her ambition and her desire to acquire and destroy forests throughout the world. She marries Dieter Breitsprecher, a competitor and conservationist.
Throughout the novel forests are destroyed and the Mi’kmaq and other Indian tribes ways of life are rapidly destroyed. Certain Duke family and Sel family members become engaged in conservation efforts to try to stem the damage from the cutting and burning. Through those conservation efforts Proux explains the broad impact of the destruction of the forest on plants, people, climate and the future.
Tragedy and success befall each generation of the two families, although the successes are less frequent on the Sel side. Barkskins tells a grand tale of destruction, greed, sacrifice and regeneration. The novel, which is beautifully and flawlessly written, requires a commitment from its readers, both in terms of time and complexity, and includes a detailed, and indispensable, family tree for the Sels and the Dukes. If you like a challenging and thought provoking (and perhaps slightly preachy) read, you can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking on http://encore.cuyahoga.lib.oh.us/iii/encore/record/C__Rb11197196__Sbarkskins__P0%2C2__Orightresult__X7?lang=eng&suite=gold