When Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, immigrants from France, begin cutting logs in what in the late 17th century was known as New France, they hadn’t a clue that they were in the vanguard of generations of woodcutters — barkskins — who would destroy much of North America’s vast forests.
The two men were a different as pine and oak, and their stories and those of their descendants are told superbly by Annie Proulx ‘s ambitious “Barkskins.” In a sense, their stories are vehicles through which Proulx tells the larger story of the settlement of this continent and the destruction not just of its majestic woodlands for everything from ship masts to towns but the destruction of native cultures as well.
Both Sel and Duquet are looking for a better life and hire on as indentured servants. Sel works his three years and more in exchange for some land in eastern Canada. He marries a native woman — a Mi’kmaw — and their family struggles to adapt to a world that is changing faster than they can. They cope, via his skill with an ax, their hunting and fishing and Mari’s way of making something out of nothing. But there is never anything extra and the seasons are unforgiving.
As for white influence, it is unrelenting and often cruel, both by the French and English, whose interest is in the forests of southeastern Canada the Mi’kmaw have always called home. Awestruck by what appeared to be endless and perfect forest, the settlers take land, offering the most dangerous forest jobs to the Mi’kmaw and other Indians, and in return share diseases that nearly wipe out entire villages.
Sel’s early companion, Duquet, breaks his contract and makes his own way. Less honest but more clever than Sel, Duquet wants money and power. It doesn’t come easily or quickly, but his plans pay off in a loveless marriage to Cornelia Roos, the daughter of a Dutch sea captain. She stays in the Netherlands and they adopt the sons both want and Duquet needs. His lumber company, Duquet et Fils, later becomes Duke and Sons. Its assault on trees — especially pine but later hardwoods — contributes to the settlement of parts of Canada and the United States.
When the best of the Eastern forest has been cut — or burned to make room for impatient farmers — the lumbermen head to Pennsylvania, Ohio, and later Michigan, all of whose forests are as infinite as the forests in what are now Maine and Nova Scotia.
Though the early decades of the tale are fascinating, the strongest characters arrive later. Among the most memorable is Lavinia Duke, an engaging little girl whose combination of intelligence, business acumen and even ruthlessness powers the family company well into the 19th century. She marries a one-time rival, Dieter Breitsprecher, who years earlier had taught her a lumber skill denied her by her own family. With the company headquarters long since moved from Boston to Chicago, she and Dieter are on their honeymoon when the Chicago fire destroys much of the city and simultaneously provides vast opportunities for the company.
Two other intriguing characters are Kuntaw, a Mi’kmaw hunter who strives with only modest success to preserve his culture and keep families together, and Sapatisia, a contemporary Mi’kmaw who uses her background and education to try to restore lost forestlands.
She knows that humanity cannot reverse course, and she knows the seedlings she plants and the research she and others do are baby steps in rebuilding the forests. It took centuries for trees and so many other living things — brush, vines, bears, moose, beavers, foxes, birds, worms and more — to become the monumental natural systems they once were
Through a colorful succession of characters — strong, weak, admirable and not so admirable — “Barkskins” moves through the decades and centuries from Europe to New France to China, New Zealand, Australia and Brazil and back to Canada and the United States. It is a memorable, powerful story.
In addition to “Barkskins,” Annie Proulx is the author of “The Shipping News” and “Brokeback Mountain,” which first appeared in the New Yorker and became an Oscar-winning movie. Among her many honors is a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award.
Walt Braun retired recently as editorial page editor of The Mercury.