Barkskins

By Annie Proulx

Scribner. 736 pp. $32.00 nolead ends

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Reviewed by Kevin Grauke


nolead ends Annie Proulx cares deeply about place. From the cold, wet Newfoundland coast of her Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Shipping News (1993) to the Wyoming emptiness of her story-collection trilogy of Close Range (1999), Bad Dirt (2004), and Fine Just the Way It Is (2008), Proulx's greatest strength as a writer has always been her ability to bring unforgiving landscapes - and the sorts of people who live on these landscapes - to vivid life.

In Barkskins, her mammoth new book - and her first novel in 14 years - place once again plays an integral role in the narrative, though in a slightly different fashion. Here, setting is less about fenceable locations and more about terrestrial biomes - forests, in particular.

Spanning 1693 to 2013 over more than 700 pages, it traces the lives of the descendants of René Sel and Charles Duquet, two men who leave France to meet their destiny in a land not yet known as Canada. Indenturing themselves to a landowner for three years as woodcutters in exchange for parcels of land in the future, they set out to raze the forest, one tree at a time.

When one of them asks how big this forest is, their seigneur replies, "It is the forest of the world. It is infinite. It twists around as a snake swallows its own tail and has no end and no beginning. No one has ever seen its farthest dimension." It's this sentiment more than anything that propels generations of characters across the continent toward both prosperity and tragedy.

Sel and Duquet quickly head off in different directions, as do their descendants. Sel toils for his seigneur and bides his time, but Duquet immediately runs off with ambitious dreams. In alternating sections, Proulx then follows the progeny of each man over the centuries.

One bloodline builds a timber empire, while the other diffuses into the Mi'kmaw people of current-day Nova Scotia and struggles to find its way from generation to generation. One side tends to see the forest primarily as an endless source of wealth, while the other tends to see it as a "living entity, as vital as the waterways," meant to be lived with "in harmony and gratitude." These bloodlines eventually intersect - and the forests turn out not to be endless.

Proulx shines brightest when focused on the details of the lives of the characters dedicated to the transformation of trees into material for human use. In her portraits of everyone from the ax swingers to the dead-water men (you'll have to read the book to learn what they do) to the surveyors to the people at the top who turn their profit-seeking attention to the monstrous kauri trees of New Zealand, her extensive research always enriches the narrative without becoming either tedious or distracting.

Proulx's work has consistently demonstrated a deep concern for the havoc wreaked upon both the traditional ways of common people and the natural world by the modern, moneygrubbing world. In Barkskins, Proulx mourns the systematic decimation of North America's indigenous forests and its peoples. While the end of the novel rather sentimentally asserts that the "dispossessed people who lived in forests for millennia . . . are the ones who best understand how to heal the forest," the overarching tone of the work remains elegiac.

Barkskins is nothing if not ambitious. And Proulx is more than up to the formidable task. None of the numerous settings or centuries fails to come to life in anything less than vivid fashion. However, while the novel's enormous scale provides us with a tragic portrait of the steady and inexorable destruction of so much and so many beneath the grinding wheels of Western progress, it also prevents us from getting to know any particular character in much depth.

In the end, Barkskins never fails to impress, but it also never manages to captivate in quite the same way as some of her early work.

Kevin Grauke is the author of "Shadows of Men," a collection of stories. He is associate professor of English at La Salle University.