A WRITER'S WIT
My Book World
How does one begin to talk about such a magnificent saga of more than seven hundred pages? Start big. Barkskins (a name for tree choppers) features multiple generations of two French Canadian families: the Sels and the Duquets (later to become the Dukes), as well as the Indians (Mi’kmaw) with whom they intermarry. The family then embark on the timber business. Early in the novel, Proulx informs readers where she’s headed (an exposé of the timber industry’s evil effects), albeit in a subtle manner: “With a pointed stone, he [young René Sel] marked the haft with his initial R. As he cut, the wildness of the world receded, the vast invisible web of filaments that connected human life to animals, trees to flesh and bones to grass shivered as each tree fell and one by one the web strands snapped” (12). This invisible web connecting all life to the fate of trees across our vast globe is what Proulx limns for us, as well as what happens when greed and myopia control such an influential industry (for a certain period, until all the old growth trees are gone).
Proulx does a number of things to make reading this novel a pleasure (I read it aloud to my partner over a period of weeks). In terms of structure, she divides the novel into ten major parts, mostly by broad time periods of twenty-five to seventy years. Within each part she numbers continuous chapters (seventy), each with a telling chapter title—making it possible to digest the novel in small parts. Second, no matter how short appearance a character may make, Proulx creates three-dimensional people readers can relate to. Birth and death are near daily events she treats with objective indifference: “He was no riverman. Before he could collect his season’s pay, he drowned below Wolf Falls and, like countless other fathers, slipped into the past” (277). Last, Proulx conveys verisimilitude. She has thoroughly researched relevant geography, relevant history, relevant information about the timber industry from its earliest days in Canada and New England to modern efforts to “farm” timber, i.e. plant trees for future generations. Perhaps, most of all, Proulx makes us love trees, their forests, both extinct and living: all their possible uses besides building building building. Without stooping to didactic methods, she makes us love these leafy beasts, forces us to see how important they have always been and continue to be to the survival of the world.