I’ve seen several reviews of Barkskins, by Annie Proulx, that compare her book to James Michener’s epics. The comparison is apt, and I felt the similarities myself. But her saga of the development of forestry in North America was more like Michener’s later works, not his earlier, stronger novels. It was history, thinly covered with a layer of story.
For the first hundred pages or so, I wanted to enjoy this book. It had a lot of things I like—a sense of history, factual information about the lumber industry that could learn from, and a sweeping narrative about the settling of the New World. But after trying for one hundred pages (of 700), I decided all I could do was slog through it. And I did make it to the end.
Michener depicted places over long periods of history. He often began with the land before human habitation, starting his books even eons before men arrived. Proulx doesn’t quite begin with the forest primeval, but she does begin with white men’s arrival in the New World in the 1600s.
In a nutshell, here’s the plot (no real spoilers): At the outset of Barkskins, two indentured Frenchmen are brought to Canada to chop down trees for their master. One man, Charles Duquet (who changes his name to Duke), escapes, and the other, Rene Sel, serves his time. Each man survives, and the book follows the Duke and Sel families through more than three hundred years of North American development. Both families remain associated with the logging industry as it progresses through time. Their fortunes rise and fall. Through the novel, Proulx delivers a polemic on the destruction of forests and its impact on both Native American and white cultures through the centuries.
As I read, I kept thinking I should like this book. My grandfather worked in the lumber industry in Oregon, producing machine parts for sawmills from about 1940 until the early 1960s. I should have appreciated the descriptions of the labor and machinery needed to get logs from forests to the mills.
I remember many drives through the Pacific Northwest. Sometimes we saw denuded forests, slow trucks bearing logs with circumferences larger than I was tall, and booms of logs floating down rivers. On other trips I saw virgin stands of towering trees, second growth almost ready for harvest, and miles and miles of mountains covered in trees. I should have liked Proulx’s depiction of scenes I remember from my youth. (The Pacific Northwest is somewhat different than Maine and French Canada of the 1700s, but the sense of limitless forest—though it is in fact limited—must be similar.)
I’ve seen the impact of the logging industry. I know it has built the New World for better and for worse, at great profit and at great loss. While I’m not a true preservationist, I understand the idiocy of those who thought the forests were infinite—one of the main points of Proulx’s book.
But despite all these aspects of my background that should have given me reasons to enjoy Barkskins, I just didn’t like it. Despite my enthusiasm at the beginning of the novel, despite trying desperately for 100 pages, I just couldn’t like the characters.
What I like best about historical fiction is when an author creates a sense of real people in a real time. I admire Proulx’s research. Her depiction of woodcutting and processing over centuries is detailed and, I assume, accurate. But I had little sense of where the plot was in the larger scheme of world events. The characters barely dealt with the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, or the World Wars of the 20th Century—all of which must have had an impact on the commerce she describes.
I loved Michener’s The Source and Hawaii. Both novels had a sense of history, of the sweep of development. And they had strong characters that I cared about. By contrast, the characters in Barkskins felt manipulated, like the author created them only as archtypes to make a point, not to tell a story. I felt like Proulx was a deus ex machina pulling the puppet strings of her characters.
Now, as an author, I know that all characters are manipulated by their creators. But good writing makes this manipulation seem organic, invisible to the reader. In Barkskins, I felt like the characters existed only to serve her soapbox, not to give readers insight into the human frailties that lead to misconceptions and mistakes such as real people make.
I read an article in which Proulx spoke of her own family history in North America, which began with a French ancestor brought to the forests of Canada. Again, I admire her fortitude in researching the long history of woodsmen in Canada and the Northern U.S. The Duke and Sel family trees through the generations were detailed and sprawling. But I didn’t feel her connection to these people any more than I developed a connection with them myself.
Proulx’s prose can be beautiful. But every character has a different gruesome way to die. Arrows. Limbs lost. Fire. Cholera. Consumption. There are a few murders. When she was ready to move on, she killed off another character. I quit caring how they died, ready to move on myself.
Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was another novel with beautiful writing. I wrote earlier that the only character I cared about in that saga was the painting. In Barkskins, I didn’t even care about the forests.
Barkskins is dark, with hardly a moment of humor in it. Proulx’s novel The Shipping News was also dark, but I didn’t feel my emotions manipulated in that book. In The Shipping News, I felt I was looking in the window at people with very real problems. In Barkskins, I felt I was looking down on them from Mars.
Part of my problem with Barkskins is that I am not a fan of the omniscient narrator who sits above the characters, seeing into one’s head and then another’s. Maybe I wouldn’t have minded if she chose to tell her story through one character per generation, but she sometimes moved from head to head from one paragraph to the next. I even caught a few places where she was in two heads in one paragraph. This technique added to my feeling that I was being manipulated.
In short, this polemic didn’t need to be over 700 pages to make the point that denuding forests, in the belief that they are unlimited, was stupid. And it needed more humanity to care about.
When have you been disappointed by a novel you really wanted to read?