Humanity’s written history perpetual for such a time now, fiction set in yesteryear has become an area of writing unto itself—a whole branch of novels and books overlaying stories of their own onto facts as we know them. And the success of well-written historical fiction is natural; humanity remains as interested in its past as it does its future. The real challenge for a writer of such novels is to include an agenda relevant to the contemporary world. Focusing on the history of North America’s forests, interweaving them with the tales of multiple generations of two families, with Barkskins (2016) Annie Proulx proves that historical fiction can be every bit as relevant as contemporary fiction.
Barkskins is the story of two indentured servants, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, and the generations of their families that disperse throughout the centuries that follow—blue collar to white, lumberjack to aristocrat. Sent by their king in the mid 17th century to cut timber in Nouveau France, the two men arrive together in the same dense, mosquito-infested forest, but quickly move in different directions. Sel remains on the land, indifferent to the mistreatment by his lord, and clears space for a family and livelihood. Duquet, on the other hand, escapes servitude and puts into action ideas that will fulfill his dreams of being a man of empire. Both men’s lives taking unexpected turns toward their respective goals, they live long enough to father children, children who carry on the family names in equally interesting and varied means. But always the forests remains a part of their lives, even as it dwindles around them.
Looking at thematic interpretations on wikipedia, I have to laugh how limiting the application of post-colonialism is in the case of Barkskins. Just because it’s a novel wherein colonization plays a central role doesn’t mean the analogous cultural theory is the best means of dissecting the novel. If this review hasn’t made it clear thus far, then environmentalism is the best lens through which to view the story. From the title (‘barkskins’ means ‘woodcutters’) to the multiple generations involved with the forests, there is an unrelenting focus on presenting the human effect on Earth’s woodlands. The boundaries and limits relevant to post-colonialist theory do exist, but in the background of the story and are rarely if ever developed. It is the human impact on nature which is foregrounded.
Thus, Barkskins must be considered eco-historical fiction. Fear not, however, Proulx avoids any potential dryness of tone or didacticism on the environmental front by maintaining steady focus on the families, their decisions, and the major events of their lives. The seven hundred-plus pages are kept afloat by drama, rarely of the melodramatic variety. Each fate or character endpoint, for better or worse, feels the natural result of the path they walked to that point, the culture they were a part of, and the choices they made. The result is a truly braided story. The environmental aspect derives from the perpetual presence of the forests, woodcutting, and lumber work in the lives of these characters and their dramas. Sel’s family lives in the forests while Duquet’s goes into business with it, in turn covering the spectrum of personal to commercial, political to botanical. From the provision of simple fire to material source for the majority of the world’s trade and war vessels of the time, Proulx subtly enfolds a quantity of research while keeping the story human-centric. Going one step further, the saga element—the usage of multiple generations over centuries—serves to illustrate precisely how large the human effect is.
In the end, statistics are one way of summing a large chunk of history. But, as Proulx proves, so too is deft storytelling. With Barkskins, in fact, Guardian reviewer Anthony Cummins wonders if historical fiction is not the most appropriate medium for environmental fiction. Size not belying pace, Proulx drives a multi-generational storyline in a fashion that has the reader turning the pages, all the while secreting its true size and import, namely by presenting a long term picture of humanity’s woodland and resource usage. It is storytelling of the purest with a truth painted in bold letters at its heart, and ends on a note appropriately compromissory to both sides of the environmental coin. John Steinbeck, Pearl Buck, or better yet, James Michener would be proud.