Annie Proulx is an eighty-one-year-old American author who has enjoyed success thanks to Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain, two novels that have become successful films. Shipping News is the first book I read in English without too much difficulty and I remember the sympathetic story and especially the way it was presented to the cinema thanks to the talent of Kevin Spacey and Julianna Moore. Barkskins was released last year and some said it was her best book. It is undoubtedly the longest (736 pages). I reserved it at the library last year before leaving for my annual trip, but the waiting list was too long and I thought I would read it sometime, when I would be back. The book was already on the shelves in January, perhaps because the seven hundred and thirty-six pages had discouraged more than one.
The story is about two men, René Sel and Charles Duquet, who arrived in Nouvelle France in 1693. They must work for three years for a seigneur before obtaining their own plot of land. Duquet fled, while Salt stayed and, to please the seigneur, married his former Micmac concubine (while the seigneur married a Frenchwoman who had recently arrived in the country) and produced a long line of mixed race, while Duquet founded a dynasty of forest owners. Proulx follows their descendants for three hundred years in their disappointments and successes. It is a book that will appeal to those who are interested in the beginnings of New France and New England, as well as those who have an interest in the environment, as much of the book evokes the (wild) deforestation of the Maritimes and of New England. Several reviewers see this theme as the center of this “fiction”. The history of the First Nations (or whatever other name given to them), the disappearance of their way of life, the clash between cultures that saw nature in a diametrically opposed way, are all part of the story.
I was not surprised to read that Proulx had initially planned to write a didactic book on this subject (for which she has done extensive research), and that it was only towards the end that she made the decision to make it as a novel. The “fictionalization” of her research is often superficial, and I often felt she was passing through the history of the countless characters (too many to be remembered) as something that has to be done, even before I learned how this historical novel had come into being. I had the feeling that she was telling the story as a (not always good) journalist recounting various facts (and not always necessarily in the best newspaper). I also often thought about the episodes of Who do you think you are? , when individuals searching for their ancestry reconstruct their lives from news found in newspapers or official documents. She has little interest in the psychology of characters, they often come and go, disappear quite quickly, except for a few of them that are better explored. If this process allows to evoke the fragility of life, its brevity, its sudden disappearance, as was the case at that time, one wonders what its bring to the great saga of the Salt and Duke. One feels nevertheless a real passion for the environment. She explores the techniques of cutting trees, the hard life of those whose job it was to cut these trees very convincingly. There is even an episode on the deforestation of New Zealand (which I thought was well done). The author, a historian by training, did not skimp on research (it took ten years to write this book). What has touched me most, however, is how the torment of the First Nations, their slow and inexorable decline, and sometimes their psyche.
In an interview she has claimed to write in a traditional style, but I did not find it to be the case. I must admit that this is what I least liked in this novel. It took me a good fifty pages before I started to get used to Proulx’s style and even after seven hundred and thirty-six pages, her style did not succeed in seducing me. Other critics mentioned the lack of coherence of certain characters who sometimes spoke in “Indian” and other times in irreproachable English, but I did not notice these differences because I was often a little lost amidst the multiple characters.
I have nevertheless read (by skipping passages) the book with interest, clinging to some themes that I liked more, including that of the First Nations, certain characters, including Lavina, some anecdotes and her once in a while deeper examination of the psyche of the New World settlers or First Nations. This book would make a beautiful mini-series (perhaps this was what Proulx had in mind when writing it) and will probably be translated into French very soon.