In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” 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 Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. 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, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.
There aren’t an abundance of Canadian history novels of this type, so I jumped on Barkskins like Torontonian spotting a Tim Horton’s on a long road trip.
I loved the overall story of the book. Long historical epics are awesome. Long historical epic about Canada are even more awesome.
References and settings in places I have actually visited helped me picture and get more involved with the story. However, I did feel a disconnect from the characters. I didn’t get emotionally attached to any of them; I was just there on the sidelines watching them do their thing.
Despite the distance from the characters, it was still an interesting read (especially for someone who has an interest in Canadian history and Native Canadian history).
At just over 700 pages it’s by no means a quick read. I read it slowly over the course of a couple months, but it wasn’t the length that made me read slowly, it was the density. Some chapters glazed over important events with several years passing in the span of just a few pages. I wanted to experience events with the characters, but instead it was just a paragraph of explanation and then moving on to the next thing. Unfortunately, it made for a bit of a dry read in places.
It was not at all a character driven story. None of the characters stood out to me and by the end of the book they had all meshed together. I wish it were longer so we could get to know the characters, flesh out events instead of glossing over them.
I love historical epics. The longer the better. But this one definitely should have been longer. If it were longer (or split into two larger books), we could get the experience of both an interesting, epic plot, as well as the characters who drive it. Instead, at times I felt like I was reading a non-fiction account of the history of two families and the ramifications of deforestation.
Interesting, yes. Captivating, not as much.