Thursday, May 25, 2017

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

 Annie Proulx’s sprawling saga, Barkskins, is at once a cautionary tale and an epic testimony to the force of will. The story follows the lives and descendants of two indentured servants, René Sel and Charles Duquet, who land in New France with the crude social climber Monsieur Claude Trépagny. Shortly after discovering the true nature of his master’s plans, Duquet runs off, taking his chances in the forest-choked landscape of modern day Canada. René Sel stays behind, letting winds of fate decide his destiny.

Duquet survives his trek and begins to make a name for himself among the fur traders.  With an eye for business and a desperate need for status, he expands his scope to including the burgeoning timber industry.  Suddenly, before cementing his status as a man of worth (after starting life as a street urchin in Paris), the patriarch mysteriously disappears. His progeny continue to expand the venture, bringing fortune and recognition to the “Duke” family name, with two or three members of each generation inheriting his drive and acumen.

Rene, far less driven, stays put on the Trépagny land and is forced into a marriage with Trépagny’s mi’kmaq cook Mari. Their children, along with her previous children, wander the land of New France, some spreading as far as New England. Mixed-raced, they live on the fringe, working as barkskins (lumberjack). Several attempt to flee the white man’s influence, and are constantly being pushed west and north as new settlers arrive, devouring the land like locusts.

Impeccably researched and told without the heavy gloss that tends to romanticize colonial times, Barkskins is a masterpiece of historical fiction.

Jennifer Wilson

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