Book Review – Barkskins

UnknownShould you read Annie Proulx’s latest epic novel, Barkskins? Maybe. Maybe not.

I normally reserve the first Monday of each month to blog about a nonfiction book, but Barkskins is so replete with fact and history that I decided it was close enough to nonfiction to qualify. Besides, today’s Tuesday.

If you’re concerned about the environment, and specifically about the systematic destruction of our globe’s forest lands over the last few centuries, maybe you should read this book. If you don’t care about our planet, then maybe you shouldn’t.

The epigraph by historian Lynn White, Jr. foreshadows the rest of the novel:

“In Antiquity every tree, every spring, every stream, every hill had its own genius loci, its guardian spirit. These spirits were accessible to men, but were very unlike men…Before one cut a tree, mined a mountain, or dammed a brook, it was important to placate the spirit in charge of that particular situation, and to keep it placated. By destroying pagan animism, Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”

Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr said Barkskins bears “exquisite witness to our species’s insatiable appetite for consumption.”  Put perhaps even more succinctly, William T. Vollmann for The New York Times said it’s a “tale of long-term, shortsighted greed.”

If you liked learning all the fine details of the whaling industry in Moby Dick and would now like to learn everything there is to know about the timber industry and then some, then maybe you should read this book. If you have no interest in how board feet are estimated in a forest, then maybe you shouldn’t.

Booklist refers to this novel as a sylvan Moby Dick, and rightfully so. Just as Melville taught us far more about the whaling industry than we ever imagined possible, Proulx teaches us about types of trees, methods of logging, transportation of wood, milling, and much more.

Helen Embry Heltzel wrote in the Seattle Times that Barkskins “leaves no board unturned as it covers the industry that brought us plywood, cheap paper, and prefab housing.” I may never look at a pine forest the same way again.

If you like stories where landscape is front and center, then maybe you should try this novel. If you’re all about human character and plot, then maybe you shouldn’t.

The landscape is the protagonist here—the character with the most at stake–except that the landscape doesn’t have any free will or power. Things are done to it, and it has no way of protecting itself or retaliating. Still, Proulx’s vivid prose brings the forest to life so that the reader can experience it profoundly and become emotionally attached to it just as one would normally become attached to a main character in another novel.

“Men were chopping pine in hundreds of places. The big softwoods fell. New seedlings burst up on cutover ground, but now there was a break in the density of the woodland, and as new trees sprouted, the species succession shifted a little in each cutover tract. The forest began to alter in small ways. It still lived but it was not what it had been. Few noticed. The forest was a grand resource and it was both the enemy and wealth. Achille [a Mi’kmaq character] felt it was the same with the Mi’kmaq; the white settlers used them and took them down.”

I certainly became more attached to the forest than most of the characters, in part because I love our natural world and in part because there were too many characters to keep track of. Because this novel spans many generations, and because the narrative dwells so much on the landscape as well as the details of the timber industry, there is less word count available for character development. A few key characters have depth here and there but decades fly past until another character of some importance emerges. As such, it was at times difficult to remain emotionally connected to the people.

As for plot, the motion of the story felt limp at times, too. White man (or woman) cuts tree down. Indigenous man (or woman) mourns lost landscape. White people oppress native people. Both story lines are horrible and horribly true, and these sins become more and more grave as we watch them repeated over and over again, generation after generation. But we get it. A novel has to entertain as well as educate. Sure, companies are formed. People marry. Babies are born. Tragedy strikes. But the underlying story remains, to a great deal, the same.

“Watching its action is like strolling around the world’s largest ant farm. There’s more wriggling than drama.” So says Dwight Garner, for The New York Times.

If you like multi-generational stories with lots of characters, and plots that weave this way and that, maybe you should check out this one. If you prefer stories that focus on a small collection of people and that stay in one time zone, maybe you shouldn’t.

A few more words about character: I was reminded of James Michener while reading Barkskins. Although Proulx doesn’t take us back to the beginning of time when dinosaurs roamed, she does start the story several centuries ago with two indentured woodcutters transported to Canada from Europe in the late 17th century and methodically moves us ever closer and closer to the present. Entertainment Weekly said it’s “bigger than any one man, one death, or even one culture.”

I was able to keep the characters straight for the first half of the book, but eventually I found it more difficult to do so as generational lines lengthened. Maybe I was just growing weary.

If you like stories about how whites oppressed indigenous people, then maybe you should read Barkskins. If you don’t care about what happened to Native Americans, First Nation people, and even the early inhabitants of New Zealand, then maybe you shouldn’t. (Go get some therapy instead.)

This giant volume weaves together the sub-stories of white European settlers and the Mi’kmaq people who lived in eastern Canada. For the most part, the white stories were about timber harvesting and greedy land acquisition while the native people stories revolved around displacement, disease, and despair.

“The French see us as soldiers to fight for them, our women good only for fucking. The priests see us as bounty for their God as we might see beaver skins. They do not see us as worthy people.”

Ultimately the story of the Mi’kmaq is the same predictable tragedy that happened to most indigenous people at the hands of white men.

If you like stories that are set primarily in what eventually became Nova Scotia, Maine and Massachusetts, but that also meander around to other parts of the world, then maybe you should read this novel. If you’re indifferent to the northeastern part of North America or to geography in general, then maybe not.

I appreciated the focus on the pre-American Revolution history of the northeast, as well as the landscape of that area. But I also found my heart pitter-pattering as the characters made their way west to Chicago (my hometown) and eventually to the northwest (my current home). Having never been to New Zealand, I was also fascinated by the chapters set there, and I was equally drawn to the settings in Europe and China. In fact, I was surprised by how much trans-ocean traveling was done centuries ago, especially before the days of the Panama or Suez Canals.

If you like it when lots of characters die, as in Game of Thrones, then maybe you should read this. If you prefer your literary characters to remain alive, then maybe you shouldn’t.

Obviously people are going to die in a book that spans several centuries, but dying from something other than old age seemed to be more the norm than the exception: cholera or small pox, childbirth, shipwrecks, logging accidents, and on and on. It became predictable, if not laughable: nearly every time someone went off on a trip you knew they’d never make it back.

If you like really long reads, the maybe you should get started. If you prefer short books, then maybe you shouldn’t. Or maybe you should listen to it on audio instead.

The paperback version, due out later this month, is 736 pages long. You’d think that with all the forest trimming going on in the story, Proulx might have trimmed her word count. More importantly, you’d think that with all her save-the-forest ranting, she might have shortened the book to keep a few more trees alive.

I decided to check out the audio version from my local library, which is exactly how I finally made it through Moby Dick years ago. I guess my ears can handle long novels better than my eyes. Narrated by actor Robert Petkoff, the CD version of Barkskins consists of 21 discs, which translates to more than 21 hours of listening time. It would be a perfect book to listen to while driving through miles and miles of forestland.

If you like novels with a dominant theme that only sprinkles in other issues here and there, then maybe you should give this a try. If you prefer a novel with multiple big themes that are each well-flushed out, then maybe you shouldn’t.

The destruction of forests and the oppression of indigenous people are the (sometimes overwhelming) themes in Barkskins. Women’s rights, rape, misguided government, gender identity, child molestation at the hands of clergy, and other societal matters are dropped in here and there throughout the novel—sometimes taking up only a few paragraphs and mercilessly teasing the reader. I certainly wouldn’t have recommended adding a single page to elaborate upon these themes, but I do think Proulx might have cut back some on the timber narrative (we got the point in the epigraph, after all) to expand on some other important society issues in this epic tome.

If you like masculine novels, then maybe you should read this one. If you like chick lit, then maybe you shouldn’t. If you’re somewhere in between, then IDK.

I’m calling this a masculine novel in part because most of the key characters were men and in part because it was about an industry that was predominantly inhabited by men. Also, the narratives were more about business matters and technicalities than relationships (romantic or otherwise), which to me translates to a more masculine feeling. Finally, although the dominant female character took on a business role in the late 1800’s and could have been a nod to early feminism, she approached her job with the same intense, insensitive avarice that men before her had. Many native people believe that women are the nurturers of the earth, and I had high hopes that this character would embrace this idea. Unfortunately, she didn’t.

If you like a novel that depresses you with each slice of the ax but leaves you with a slight modicum of hope at the end, then maybe you should read it. If you like stories with happily-ever-after endings, then don’t bother.

I recently attended an environmental talk about the state of affairs for salmon, and one of the experts said we humans won’t destroy the earth. This sounded like good news until the speaker went on to say that we’ll destroy pretty much everything that lives on it, but not to worry: in another hundred thousand years or so, life will return and the earth will survive. Gee, thanks.

That’s sort of how I felt throughout Barkskins. Proulx hits the reader/listener over the head over and over again re: how badly we’ve been destroying our forests for centuries. Some of her characters in the late 1800’s were early conservationists, which was a welcome reprieve from all the chopping, but the deforestation continued. At the end, she offers only a sliver of hope for our future.

I changed my mind: if you don’t care about our planet, then you should read this book. Twice.

In conclusion, Barkskins is a stunning epic novel, and I’m glad I made it through. But it’s not for everyone.


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