We gave it an A
Few authors are as uniquely qualified as Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) to sustain a novel as long as Barkskins. Even though it’s 713 pages, it often recalls some of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s best short stories, including “Brokeback Mountain,” given her ability to infuse loss and heartbreak and beauty into the sparsest of sentences.<
Opening in 1693, Barkskins explores the family trees of René Sel and Charles Duquet—two indentured tree cutters in what would become Canada—periodically dropping in on both clans as they attempt to tame the New World. In its earliest chapters, the novel sucks readers in with its austerely painted landscape. The country is dark and dense, and death abounds—at least for the first couple hundred years or so. Through the families that spring off from Sel and Duquet (diagrams for which are mercifully printed in the back of the book), we see the settling of wilderness, the oppression of native peoples, and the many, many ways a person can die. There is a macabre panache to how she dispatches her characters: sudden scalpings, seemingly minor infections, and the like carry off major characters with such little fanfare that George R.R. Martin might find it cold.
But in terms of how these departures affect the shape of the overall novel, the inevitability of death, it turns out, is excellent narrative propellant. Pages melt away as readers zoom through the decades. Proulx’s story is bigger than any one man, one death, or even one culture: It’s about the effect civilization and society have had on the land. In her magical way, Proulx leaves the reader with an impression of not only a collection of people, but our people and the country that shaped us as we shaped it. This is Proulx at the height of her powers as an irreplaceable American voice. A