I’m not good, necessarily, at following through on authors. I have a tendency to take the punk rock attitude – bands often only had enough to say for one album, and because of that reading anything more is a waste of time. I have read dozens of authors who have proven this untrue, but I think that I sort of fall back into this position more than often than I care to admit.
That said, Barkskins is the second novel of Proulx’s that I’ve read, and I think I enjoyed it as much as I liked Shipping News. The plotline is relatively straightforward, as we follow several branches of a family tree that originated with a couple of indentured French servants stuck in the main woods. Proulx walks us through natural and economic history, migration, immigration, natural medicines, and conversation theories of forestry. Mostly, though, she walks us through the rapacious destruction of the great North American forests by a combination of capitalism and white greed.
- I didn’t think of Proulx as being heavy-handed in Shipping News, so I’m guessing that the parts of this novel that felt preachy were simply a product of the historical context. She saves the most obvious moralizing for the very end, but by then I was ready for it, as she talks about the tragic experiment that we are conducting on our only planet.
- The cultural ramifications of capitalism are clear in all sorts of ways. She doesn’t spare details on the dangers of being a logger or a riverman; she notes the violence and degradation European culture visited on the natives; she even has her timber barons travel the world looking for more trees to cut.
- She makes clear that the Native Americans were seduced by the vast number of goods they could buy from Europeans, including iron cooking pots and steel knives and tools that made hunting and carving easier.
- She also notes the cultural ramifications of imperialism and colonialism in powerful ways, as she discusses the French defeat, the myriad Native American losses, the manifest destiny that gives capitalists moral cover for the incredible destruction.
- Some of the characters were particularly powerful, and few are one-dimensional – the first woman to run a company is also completely unconcerned about her German husband’s ideas about conservation, and we even have one French woman who upon her death turns out to be a man.
- The novel gives a strong sense of the enormous numbers of cultures that run into each other as well, as all kinds of folks meet, fuck, and kill each other.
- Once again, I marvel at how tough these folks were compared to us. They could endure cold and hunger and thirst far better than I can even imagine.
I kept thinking about Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs as I read this. I loved that novel, but it gave a much different view of Maine, one that made Maine seem wilder than it really is. Barkskins made clear just what forest inhabited by the appropriate number of humans looks like. The Mi’kmaq peoples were the First Nation that the French have children with in this novel, and the portraits that Proulx draws of their treatment are not over-dramatized but also do not stint on details.