Review: Barkskins by Annie Proulx

I hardly know where to begin in talking about Barkskins. For the concept, imagination and construction, pick your superlative. It’s a masterpiece. The way Proulx weaves through the centuries of the lumber industry with depth and insight while simultaneously interweaving poignant human and historical stories is an achievement almost beyond description.  I certainly can’t think of its like in my reading. At one moment, it’s reminiscent of Moby Dick, at another, it’s East of Eden or Giant, at still another it’s Winds of War and another, Blood Meridian.  It has some of the feel of something by Michener, who I’m afraid I could never wade through, and some of the feel of James Clavell’s Shogun, which I couldn’t put down. And yet, it remains throughout something all its own, unique and special.

It can be tempting to think of the story as a jumble of themes – the condescending subjugation of the natives by white settlers, the mindless plunder and devastation of the New World’s abundant resources, the emergence of women into positions of power and influence both socially and commercially, the lust for commercial profit over the value of stewardship of resources, even the overpowering threat of climate change. But it really is an intermingling of all these themes to produce a vivid and complex picture of what “human progress” is.

Volumes could be written on what Proulx had to know in order to produce the minute level of detail throughout every epoch, every generation, every human interaction she describes. Not just chemistry, but how chemistry was perceived in the 1600s. Not just economics, but how economic attitudes and business practices evolved, shaping everyday human interactions along the way. Not just biology, botany, architecture, culture, meteorology, topography, geography but how each of these were understood in the lives of characters, often from diverse cultural points of view, at different times throughout history.  Not just dialect, but the diverse dialect of different regions, cultures and individuals, even as they changed over time.

From all those perspectives, Barkskins is truly a monumental work. It certainly can stand among the best books I’ve ever read. Yet, a couple of things keep me from ranking it among my favorites.

For one, despite its insightful and vivid character developments, there are few people in the book one really cares about, particularly once it becomes obvious that someone you’re following may die at any time and, even if by some horrific tragedy or brutal disease, without much sorrow or pathos. You quickly get the idea that the purpose of the book is not to tell human stories, but to put human stories into a greater context.

Which leads to my other concern. Even though Proulx seems to take pains to avoid seeming distant and pedantic, there are points throughout when it cannot be disguised that she has veered away from dispassionate description of people and events and toward pedantic moralizing.  Early in the narrative, the blurring of research and character development is occasionally distracting; at times, you can practically hear quotes from Wikipedia or some history book coming out of the mouths of a character.  The book ends on a the hopeful note that perhaps within the evolution of the logging industry – and by extension human industrial development – the strains of conscience that emerged will play enough of a role to save mankind and the planet from the otherwise inevitable devastation of climate change set in motion by the plunderers of the past.

It is possible for that conclusion to leave one feeling like the entire narrative has been a 700-page diatribe on the evils of human industrial progress.  But it is equally possible to see it in the context of a story about how human beings have interwoven their personal stories into the fabric of natural history in a way whose ultimate consequences are yet to be known.  Although Proulx’s cultural commentary cannot be ignored, I choose to take the latter view of Barkskins. It’s a book with much to offer in terms of understanding and contemplating who we are as human beings. It has almost nothing to offer regarding our emotions or our souls, but of our societies and our diverse developments, it teaches much.