Annie Proulx is perhaps best known for her 1993 bestseller The Shipping News, which won both the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Or is it for her 1997 short story “Brokeback Mountain,” which brought her the first of her two O. Henry Prizes? Both, of course, were adapted into major motion pictures, with the latter garnering eight Academy Award nominations. She has also won the PEN/Faulkner Award, the Aga Kahn Prize, and the John Dos Passos Prize for lifetime achievement, making her one of America’s most celebrated living authors.
Proulx’s latest novel Barkskins ($32, from Scribner) – her most ambitious to date – is a sweeping, multi-generational saga of paradise lost, chronicling as it does the systematic deforestation of the New World. That saga begins in 1693 with the arrival in New France of two indentured servants, René Sel and Charles Duquet. “Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen in the old country for hundreds of years,” observes Sel upon first sighting “evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud-piercing spruce and hemlock.”
Sel and Duquet are tree-choppers – défricheurs, or barkskins – who’ve contracted to labor in the sunless forests of North America in hopes of earning both a small plot of land and a new start in life. While Sel fulfills his contract, takes a Mi’kmaq Indian bride, and meets a violent end, Duquet escapes his captivity and, after a series of high adventures as both fur trapper and trader, founds a timber empire that will last three hundred years.
Here, then, is the reader’s first glimpse of Proulx’s towering genius as a writer. She uses Sel’s descendants to tell her story from the viewpoint of an indigenous people whose culture and traditions fall victim to the European ax. She uses Duquet’s descendants to tell her story from the viewpoint of enterprising pioneers fulfilling their manifest destiny to wrest riches from a new and hostile land. Ultimately she uses both stories, seamlessly interwoven, to document the environmental devastation wrought by thirteen generations bent on razing, burning, and despoiling one of the world’s great virgin forests.
“Show, don’t tell” is an honored maxim of the writer’s craft, and here as well Proulx demonstrates her outsized talents. Where an “environmental novel” might, in the hands of a lesser writer, devolve into preachy polemic, Barkskins soars with rollicking tales of adventure, intrigue, bravery, and skullduggery, distracting the reader with 700-plus pages (I know, the irony) of confectionary sugar through which its spoonful of vital medicine is barely detected, and then only in welcome aftertaste.
A final hallmark of exceptional writing is the distillation of years of exhaustive research into the cultural, linguistic, and technical allusions that lend verisimilitude to historical fiction. It’s in this regard that Proulx, and Barkskins, truly shine. Her evocation of eighteenth-century Canada, with its customs and language, its wonders and hardships, transports the reader in time. So too her forays into Boston taverns, Dutch salons, Chinese gardens, Maine timber camps, Chicago mansions, and the forests – always the forests – of four continents. For the Sels, they depict a long and downward spiral of displacement, poverty, and genocide. For the Duquets, whose Duke & Sons empire grows with each generation, it’s a different journey altogether. But neither family, it seems, can escape the other, their shared origins trailing them each through time as a shadow follows a woodsman through a patch of clear-cut forest.
Scrupulously researched, expertly conceived, and flawlessly executed, Barkskins is a novel of beauty and substance that will rank among the very best you’ll read in 2016.
Chuck Greaves is the author of five novels, most recently Tom & Lucky (Bloomsbury), a WSJ “Best Books of 2015” selection and a finalist for the 2016 Harper Lee Prize. You can visit him at www.chuckgreaves.com.