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Barkskins by Annie Proulx

Reviewed by Gillian, Berkelouw Books Mona Vale


Annie Proulx' s novel tells the story of the European colonisation of North America through the exploitation of its vast forests, and the history of the Sel and Duquet family who arrive in Kebec in 1693.With the destruction of the forest comes the marginalisation of the indigenous people whose intricate relationship with their land is disrupted and who fall prey to the introduction of new diseases, new weapons and new, essentially rapacious ways of thinking about the natural world. (Does this ring any bells?)

Epic in any sense of the word, the book alternates sections dealing with the European experience and the indigenous experience.  Careering through decades and even centuries, Proulx 's story is rich in the detail of the processes and techniques of the timber getters.  Her portraits of the ambitious and resourceful men and women who drive remorselessly into the continent zing with energy and  glittering greed. They are, after all, doing the "Christian" work of turning nature's resources into personal wealth, and anyway, the trees are an endless self-regenerating resource aren't they? In parallel, Proulx's Mi'kmaq people are given the most dangerous jobs in the forest, their villages are driven into more and more remote country and the people who survive feel displaced in both European and Indian society.

 With no time for misty-eyed lingering, Proulx dispatches her characters in ruthless succession via disease, feuding or forestry accident, deaths that are every bit as ghastly as they probably were in real life in the times with which she is concerned.

This is a magnificent book, powerfully written and challenging in many ways. For this Australian reader, there were eerie parallels to our own history.

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