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Likely Stories: Barkskins by Annie Proulx


Sweeping novel of the new world open to explorers trying to make a fortune in timber.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

As a result of my intensive reading, I rarely have time for a massive read.  Annie Proulx’s latest novel, Barkskins, is a case in point.  At 713 pages, it is a story worth the extra effort.

Barkskins is a sweeping story of multiple generations of a family tree that amasses a fortune from lumber.  It begins in 1693 and ends in 2013.  I was shocked when I saw the size of this book, because I have a documentary about Proulx writing another of her wonderful novels, That Old Ace in the Hole.  In Ace, she laments how long it takes her to write a novel, primarily because of the incredibly detailed amount of searching she requires for her novels.  She said, I will never write another novel.  I would love to have a chat with her about her writing.

The novel begins.  “In twilight they passed bloody Tadoussac, Kébec and Trois-Riviéres and near dawn moored at a remote riverbank settlement.  René Sel, stiff black hair, slanted eyes, in ancient times invading Huns had been at his people—heard someone say ‘Wobik.’  Mosquitoes covered their hands and necks like fur.  A man with yellow eyebrows pointed them at a rain-dark house.  Mud, rain, biting insects and the odor of willow made the first impression of New France.  The second impression was of a dark vast forest, inimical wilderness. // The newcomers, standing in the rain waiting to be called to make their marks in a great ledger, saw the farmers clumped under a sheltering spruce.  The farmers stared at them and exchanged comments. // At his turn René made not only an X but the letter R—marred by a spatter of ink from the quill—a letter which he had learned in childhood from the old priest who aid it was the beginning of René, his name.  But the priest had died of winter starvation before he could teach him the succeeding letters. // Yellow eyebrows regarded the R.  ‘Quite the learned fellow, eh?’ he said.  He bawled out ‘Monsieur Claude Trépagny!’ and René’s new master, a shambling, muscular man, beckoned him forward.  He carried a heavy stick like a cudgel.  Drops of rain caught in the wool of his knotted cap.  Thick brows couldn’t shadow his glaring eyes, the whites so white and flashing they falsely indicated a vivacious nature.  ‘We must wait a little,’ he said to René. // The damp sky sagged downward.  They waited.  Yellow eyebrows, the deputy, whom his new master called Monsieur Bouchard, again bawled ‘Monsieur Trépagny!’ who this time fetched a familiar, Charles Duquet, a scrawny engage from the ship, a weakling from the Paris slums who during the voyage often folded up in a corner like a broken stick.  So, thought René, Monsieur Trépagny had taken two servants.  Perhaps he was wealthy, although his sodden drogue cloak was tattered. // Monsieur Trépagny tramped up the muddy path toward a line of black mist.  He did not so much as hurl himself along on his varied legs, one limber, one stiff.  He said ‘Allons-y.’  The plunged into the gloomy country, a dense hardwood forest broken by stands of pine.  René did not dare ask what services he would be performing.  After years of manly labor chopping trees in the Moravian highlands he did not want to be a house servant. // In a few hours the sodden leaf mold gave way to pine duff.  The air was intensely aromatic.  Fallen needles muted their passage, the interlaced branches absorbed their panting breaths.  Here grew hugeous trees of a size not seen in the old country for hundreds of years, evergreens taller than cathedrals, cloud p-piercing spruce and hemlock.  The Monstrous deciduous trees stood distant from each other, but overhead their leaf-choked branches merged into a false sky, dark and savage.  Achille, his older brother, would have gaped at New France’s trees.  Late in the day they passed by a slope filled with shining white trunks.  These, said Monsieur Trépagny, were bouleau blanc, and the sauvages made houses and boats from the bark, René did not believe this.” (3-4).

Whoops!  Lost again in a fantastic tale from the mind of one terrific writer.  Annie Proulx has created a story I found more than hard to put aside.  Barkskins is most definitely worth the effort in exploring this magnificent novel.  5 Stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!

Life-long voracious reader, Jim McKeown, is an English Instructor at McLennan Community College. His "Likely Stories" book review can be heard every Thursday on KWBU-FM! Reviews include fiction, biographies, poetry and non-fiction. Join us for Likely Stories every Thursday featured during Morning Edition and All Things Considered with encore airings Saturday and Sunday during Weekend Edition.