In a recent interview for Lit Hub, Annie Proulx (rhymes with "true") said she's been working on Barkskins for several decades. In some way, she said, she's been at it "since childhood." That means some part of her was working on the novel as she was writing The Shipping News, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994, and also while she was writing "Brokeback Mountain," for which she won the prize you get when Hollywood turns your short story into a successful film.
It may seem a little romantic for her to say that she's been working on the book since childhood, but after reading the 700-plus pages of seriously researched historical literary fiction about the way a line of lumberjacks (aka "barkskins") and a line of timber titans shaped US history from the early colonial era up to about three years ago, I believe her.
Though the book doesn't feel very "propulsive," Proulx's piss-and-shit realism and gorgeous sentences draw you deep into a world of woods, a world that in my imagination was populated primarily by cartoon white men with blue oxen and red shirts who harbored an incredible appetite for pancakes. The overwhelming historical authority her language projects—the sense that she's put so much work into this book—is powerful enough to make you keep reading. (Plus, there are all kinds of great tree facts toward the end, and the cinematic deaths will haunt you forever.)
The book begins with a pissy French guy named Monsieur Trépagny. He arrives in "New France" (now Nova Scotia) with two indentured servants, René Sel and Charles Duquet. When he gets the chance, Duquet steals into the wilderness. After a lot of near-death experiences reminiscent of The Revenant and a successful turn at fur trading that involves hitching a ride on a Dutch ship and international trade with China, Duquet establishes Duke & Sons lumber company. Sel stays on with Trépagny and is eventually basically forced to marry Mary (aka Mali), a Mi'kmaq Indian and expert healer. The Sel line bears the barkskins. The Duquet line bears the lumber barons.
As the book moves from generation to generation, a general thesis reveals itself: The concept of personal property, facilitated by technology and propelled by the Christian mandate for dominion, is largely to blame for the genocide of indigenous people and the impending ecological collapse. Proulx even gets into the more insidious forms of Christian influence, as when she tells the story of a guy who is told he can attend Dartmouth, but, because he's Mi'kmaq, is offered only theological courses. Education in this context is not a tool for self-empowerment but a way to promote missionary work that leads to the destruction of entire cultures and their attendant systems of knowing the world.
As in her other works, many of the images Proulx renders are terrible beauties. A mama bear engulfed in a forest fire gulps water from a lake. A guy whose ax ricochets off a frozen tree trunk and cuts so deeply into his thigh that he bleeds to death "lying on his bier of frozen blood, more frozen than the ax." The music Proulx finds in the language of quotidian struggle, though, offers consolation: "Josime was a fine hewer with the weighty broadax, trimming the log smooth and flat within a fraction of the chalk line." That well-balanced assonance is indicative of Proulx's style throughout the book—not too showy, but there's always enough sonic patterning in her sentences to let you know she's thinking about it.
It's also worth noting that queer people, women, and indigenous people aren't written out of this history, and toward the end of the book, you get a chance to geek out on contemporary forestry theory.
Also, special pleasure bonus for those who spend their Saturday mornings shuffling around in the Douglas fir duff surrounding Seattle: Diving into this book post-hike extends your tree-bathing time. And while hoofing up switchback-intensive trails, Proulx's descriptions of barkskins limbing large pines flood your mind and enrich your surroundings. The old growth feels palpably older, and the forest flickers between an image of the earth's lungs and the image of the bones of a 74-gun warship.