Thursday, October 17, 2019

75. Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Phew!  Talk about sweeping.  My friend Chris recommended this to me when he came up to visit.  I guess things in Montreal kept reminding him of Barkskins.  It was on my list and I found a nearly new hardback copy at the free shelf up on St-Viateur (that thing has been a rich mine for me this year).  I was a bit regretful that I had picked this massive tome up with so many books on my on-deck shelf, but I jumped in and devoured it.  700+ pages of historical fiction in just over two days! 

To be honest, it reads quickly.  It begins as the story of two french men who have just arrived in Nouvelle France.  They get a job as indentured servants working on this dude's homestead.  One runs away and joins up with the voyageurs, eventually making a fortune from converting furs to capital to timber rights.  The other stays, chops a ton of trees and marries a Miq'maq woman.  Going in, I though the book would unravel mostly in this period.  Had I looked at the chapter names, each of which had dates, I would have realized that it is an epic crossing almost 400 years and 8 generations of these two family lines.  The one who ran away, Duquet, starts a small timber empire and we follow it as it expands with the inward colonization of North America.  The one who stayed, Sel, starts a line of Métis, most of whom are connected with the forest industry at the bottom end.  From their narrative, we see how colonialism impacts the native people and the land itself.

Other than the first two characters and a woman president of Duke Lumbrer (what Duquet's company involves into), the book moves pretty quickly through characters so that you never really get too attached.  I am not saying this as a criticism, because I was so caught up in the narrative and wanted to find out what happened, that I was happy to move forward quickly.  The pace and how many of the characters die quite brutally and sadly, does distance one from the human connection.  Ultimately, though, this book is really about the forest and how we use and abuse it as humans.  And that part, you really feel.  It also brings home the reality of colonialism for the indigenous populations.  I had never though of agriculture as being in itself a damaging element of colonialism, but there is a part where the Miq'Maq lament how a french settler's cow has eaten hundreds of varieties of medicinal plants that don't ever grow back.  The ending got a bit rushed and preachy, but I am converted to the argument that our ways have fucked this beautiful planet up and so was enjoying the sermon. 

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