Paul Yee’s historical novel, published in 2005, is a good read for junior high and above, as well as for adults. Have you ever heard of Vancouver’s Chinatown riots of September 7, 1907? Neither have I. This attempt to purge Canada of Asian immigrants, a parade right through the middle of Chinatown, by the “Asiatic Exclusion League” turned a bad idea into a war between the Asians and equivalent of the Klu Klux Klan.
The story is told from the point of view of young Ba, son of Bing, the “bone collector,”who makes his living returning the bones of people who died in America back to China to be buried “properly.” It is a job nobody else will do because of superstition and not wanting to do such a lowly job. When Bing digs up the bones of Mr. Shum, whose skull is missing, strange things begin to happen. Although he grew up on ghost stories, Ba tries to heed his father’s advice that there are no such things as ghosts. When Ba “graduates” to houseboy in the Bently home, he finds he must face many things with courage, and eventually is able to help Mrs. Bently “restore” the mansion to its former state and condition. What was a haunted house becomes a happy home.
The characters are fictional, the plot is imaginative, but the facts on which it is based are real. This is a fascinating “peek” into Canada’s history and an easy way to learn and enjoy it.
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!