The most impressive thing about this massive novel by Annie Proulx is its size–717 pages. And, I’m so glad I tackled this big book because it is a book I will continuously look back on and never forget. Prior to reading Barkskins, Proulx’s The Shipping News, first the book, then the film, was one of my all-time favorites. This novel has been described as “…epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic…” and it delivers on all counts.
Barkskins narrates the story of two Frenchmen with nothing to their names and is set in Canada, then known as New France. We follow the Sel and Douquet families for several generations (the families’ charts at the end of the book will explain all the connections). Proulx is a wonderful storyteller, and the story she tells carries the reader along like the great rivers described in the story. Some parts are humorous, reminiscent of Mark Twain’s Roughing It. Her “enchanting descriptions” are poetic in themselves, and her characterization skills demonstrate that she understands the human heart. Characters’ motives are always clear, whether they be admirable or dastardly.
It took me months, picking up and putting down this volume for periods of time to finish, but I am so glad I did. This book is not for everyone, but for those who are willing to be swept along by magnificent narrative and captivated by the history of the barkskins (wood cutters) and their descendants, the undertaking is worth it!