The earliest Old World settlers to encounter the wilderness of North America were universally dumbstruck at the sheer ferocious size of it: The rivers ran more loudly, the wildlife grew larger and teemed everywhere, the sky darkened with fowl, and the forests seemed limitless, stretching off as far as any traveler could venture. It was the haunt of bear and bandit and Indian, an omnipresent symbol of both God's bounty and Satan's dangers.
That immense forest is both the setting of Annie Proulx's challenging and intensely satisfying new novel Barkskins and the obsession, the waking dream, of the two families at the heart of the story: the Sels, who approach the wilderness by awkwardly but persistently trying to merge with it, trading with the native Mi'kmakq people and intermarrying with them, and the Duquets, who signal their own commanding, exploitive relationship with the forests by later changing their family name to Duke. "Barkskins" follows generations of these two families through multi-thread plots that spans countries and centuries, taking readers from the New France of the 16th century to the lecture rooms of the late 20th century.
Proulx populates her story with dozens of actors, each sketched with the immediacy and oddball clarity that have always made her people the most memorable parts of her novels and short stories. One character had “ice-blue eyes set deep and mouth fixed in a knot. He resembled a wizened child but spoke in a voice that was asymmetrically large.” Another “gave off an air of having hung in a silk bag in the adjoining room until it was time for him to emerge and perform the duties of his position.” About strong-willed Lavinia Duke, the novel's best-realized creation, readers are told she was “sensitive to the most subtle of oblique sneers” and had “wrathy feelings directed everywhere.” Proulx's talent for bringing individuals alive with a single perfectly-turned line has never been sharper than in these pages.
“Men must change this land in order to live in it,” one character says early on in the book, and that contest, between burgeoning industry and a natural world of enormous but limited resilience, is the heart of the novel, in which readers watch appalled as one generation after another of the “barkskins” or tree-people of the title turn the old growths into the floor boards and ship masts of a new nation.
“The forest of New England vibrated with chopping,” and the original “trackless immensity” of the greenery gives way to a nightmarish landscape of scars and waste: “The stumpy ground was gouged by oxen's cloven hooves as though a ballroom of devils had clogged in the mud: the trees fell, their shadows replaced by scalding light, the mosses and ferns below them withered.” In almost every scene, everywhere characters go, the sound of axes can be heard in the background, and yet most of those characters share the same assumptions all the earliest white settlers had: that the New World forests are inexhaustible.
The portrait of industrial “progress” is mirrored even in the two main strands of Proulx's human story: the Sels, largely hapless and tragedy-prone, end up being overshadowed virtually everywhere in the novel by the venal and larger-than-life Dukes. And all of it is rendered with a disarming subtlety that often takes dozens or even hundreds of pages to reach its point. "Barkskins" is a deceptively businesslike novel, a thing that can easily be read as a Michener-style fictionalized chronology but that is in fact aiming at quieter and far more ambitious disruptions. Some of the book's most devastating scenes and sequences sidle up to the reader without warning, and long-drawn characters are often disposed of with quick, almost Homeric irony. It's a completely masterful performance, the greatest thing this great novelist has ever written.
Her characters harvest the natural bounty all around them with every bit as much eagerness as Melville's whalers, but unlike "Moby-Dick," "Barkskins"permits no innocence: It's a panorama extending well into the age of ecological preservation. The angry activist bit-players of later chapters aren't happy living in the world created by the Dukes and their competitors.
“Now we are finishing off the cold land of little sticks, the great breeding grounds for millions of birds, the cleansing breath of the earth,” one such authority angrily warns late in the book. And yet it's a telling measure of Proulx's artistry that her generations of despoilers aren't all simple monsters; readers get swept up in their struggles even while knowing those struggles are disastrously short-sighted.
The great issues of the larger world, debates over independence, trade, and slavery, impinge irregularly on the many stories Proulx tells; her spotlight moves all over the world, from Nova Scotia to New Zealand. But always her epic comes back to the trees and the century-long war being waged against them. A character asks: “Why could the man not grasp that the Mi'kmaq wished only to live their lives as they had for many generations, and that as every day passed that became less possible?" – and the question, also a warning, resonates.