Thursday, April 6, 2017

Barkskins by Annie Proulx

In 1693 two Frenchmen, faced with lives of poverty and hopelessness in France, come to the new territory of America as indentured servants.  Their names are Rene Sel and Charles Duquet and their destinies and that of their descendants will be linked for centuries.  They are put to work as 'barkskins' or loggers.  The forest is omnipresent and the forces of civilization want the land for farming.  The work is brutal and their master is a cruel one.  They soon regret their choice.  Sel stays and over time is released and marries a Mi'kmaw woman.  Duquet runs away and becomes a fur trapper.  After some success, he decides that that trade has limited opportunities and he becomes a timber salesman.

Duquet is an instinctive businessman and his company thrives.  He goes overseas, on the long trip to China several times to trade timber for their goods and to Europe.  While in Europe, he seeks out others in the timber trade and after consideration, marries into a wealthy Dutch timber family.  He changes his name to Duke and over the years the Duke Timber company becomes successful and its founding family immensely wealthy.  They move operations from the East Coast to Chicago but constantly seek out new timber resources, in the Pacific Northwest, in New Zealand and South America.

Sel's descendants do not do as well.  Shunned by both cultures, they live in a shadowy space between.  The Indian culture is dying out as their land is appropriated by the colonists and the forests on which they depend are harvested.  Forests are considered to be resources that can't disappear but over the years that proves to be untrue.  The forests are tamed and disappear.  Most of the wood isn't even used as settlers just burn off massive acreage to start their farms.  Once cut, the forests cannot be quickly rejuvenated, even when the timber industry starts to see their folly.  The work is challenging and dangerous and those who call themselves barkskins often lead short, brutal lives.

Annie Proulx is a master author.  She has won the Pultizer Prize for Fiction.  Barkskins has been chosen as a Bailey's Prize for Women's Literature longlist, a New York Times Notable Book and a finalist for the Kirkus Prize for Best Novel.  Her multigenerational story of the Duke and Sel families and how the two interact over the years catches the reader's interest while educating about the depletion of our timber and the many uses timber can provide besides their use in construction.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction.

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