Books

Barkskins

A novel by Annie Proulx.

Annie Proulx

From the Pulitzer Prize-­­winning author of The Shipping News and "Brokeback Mountain," comes the New York Times bestselling epic about the demise of the world's forests: "Barkskins is grand entertainment in the tradition of Dickens and Tolstoy…the crowning achievement of Annie Proulx's distinguished career, but also perhaps the greatest environmental novel ever written" (San Francisco Chronicle).

In the late seventeenth century two young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures. But Duquet runs away, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Annie Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

"A stunning, bracing, full-tilt ride through three hundred years of US and Canadian history…with the type of full-immersion plot that keeps you curled in your chair, reluctant to stop reading" (Elle), Barkskins showcases Proulx's inimitable genius of creating characters who are so vivid that we follow them with fierce attention. "This is Proulx at the height of her powers as an irreplaceable American voice" (Entertainment Weekly, Grade A), and Barkskins "is an awesome monument of a book" (The Washington Post)—"the masterpiece she was meant to write" (The Boston Globe). As Anthony Doerr says, "This magnificent novel possesses the dark humor of The Shipping News and the social awareness of 'Brokeback Mountain.'" (From Scribner)

From the book

In New France, which people more and more called Canada, for the old Iroquois word kanata, Duquet was everywhere—examining, prying, measuring, observing, and calculating. Limbs and low-quality hardwood waste became high-quality firewood, and every autumn he packed twenty wagons full for the Kebec market and for Paris, when he could charter available ships with the promise of a good return cargo of tea or coffee or textiles, spices or china. Without the sure promise of a rich return cargo, he thought, let the Parisians freeze, for all he cared.

Leasing a Dutchman's ships was well enough, but he needed ships of his own. In 1712, a business acquaintance in Boston, an Englishman named Dred-Peacock, connected him to an English shipbuilder and a new but promising yard on the River Clyde, in Scotland, joined to England by the Act of Union, in '07. Duquet wanted a ship; the yard wanted wood.

"Regard the map, sir," Dred-Peacock said. "It's the closest point to the colonies — the briefest sailing time. There are signs of success on the Clyde, but they need good timbers. They will pay for them. It is an opportunity that cannot be neglected."

There were good precedents in New France for trading with the enemy, but arrangements with the English and the Scots were still secret, complex, expensive, even dangerous. Yet Duquet knew that there was profit in selling to the English, despite their colonial aims. Duquet took the plunge and Dred-Peacock took a goodly share of the profits, which increased year by year. Fifty acres of oak were needed to build one seventy-four-gun warship, and the hardwood stands along the rivers of New France began to fall to Duquet's ambitions. But he felt hampered by Kebec's distance from the money pots of the world and by the ice blockage of the Saint-Laurent River in winter.

"Duquet, it is past time for you to consider shifting your business operation to the colonies," Dred-Peacock told him as they sat over their papers and receipts in the Sign of the Red Bottle, near the wharves, the inn they favored in Boston. Never did Dred-Peacock present his ill-formed face to Duquet in Kebec; always Duquet made the trip south by schooner or by packet.


From Barkskins by Annie Proulx ©2017. Published by Scribner.