Sunday, December 4, 2016

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Barkskins, by Annie Proulx, "a tale of long-term, shortsighted greed whose subject could not be more important: the destruction of America's forests."

Annie Proulx's multi-generational story begins in 1693 with the colonization of "New France," the vast tract of north America and Canada colonized by the French between the 16th and 18th centuries. René Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in the new country as indentured servants to a harsh if not entirely brutal property owner and taskmaster, Monsieur Trépagny.

René and Charles, awestruck by the imposing, often impenetrable and seemingly limitless extent of the forest, react to it in strikingly different ways. René cleaves to his inner woodsman, shaping himself to the land, puzzled by the drive to cut further into the forest than necessary. Eventually, he marries Mari, a Mi’kmaq woman skilled in the therapeutic use of plants, enfolding her existing children with the couple’s own, and setting in train one of the novel’s key strands: the constant tension that their descendants feel as they negotiate their dual heritage.

The next 650 pages trace the bloodlines of these two men in an often grisly chronicle of deforestation, cultural erasure and international commerce. We sit in on vomit-strewn ocean crossings, shady business deals in Dutch coffee houses and fatal feuds between rival logging crews razing land wrested from the native population. The rags-to-riches rise of Duquet (always referred to by his surname) and the fortunes of his in-fighting heirs contrast with the fate of René’s mixed-race descendants, expropriated, exploited and scattered from New England to New Zealand in search of a livelihood.

As the book moves from generation to generation, a general thesis reveals itself: The concept of personal property, facilitated by technology and propelled by the Christian mandate for dominion, is largely to blame for the genocide of indigenous people and the impending ecological collapse.
This review is drawn from several reviews, including by Rich Smith, The Stranger, William T Vollman, the New York Times, and Alex Clark and Anthony Cummins, The Guardian.

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