To be frank, I’m not sure Barkskins is a stunning novel. I personally am not that fond of historic novels with lots and lots of enumerations. And given the fact that Proulx embarks on a journey spanning four centuries of family history, from the first settlers in Canada till now, enumeration is what you get. I was just not taken with the way Proulx had us catch up with family members: in a few pages she summarized life and death of several Sels or Duquets (paying special attention to the gruesome way in which most of them died in accidents or of diseases long forgotten). When Proulx decides to spend more time on one character that person comes to life, making me thoroughly enjoy that particular chapter.
Barkskins is not just a family chronicle, it is also the history of the forest on the Northern-American continent. I would even go so far as to say that the forest is the main character, not the Sels or Duquets. The ruthless manner in which settlers started cutting down the forest is downright upsetting, especially bearing in mind that their mentality is still very much alive. Profit is what counts; environment and nature lose. Forest after forest after forest is cut down to still the desire for material: ships, houses have to be build, wheat has to be grown. Many trees are cut down, woods are burnt down, complete areas left open to erosion. Those who start to think of preservation are seen as nitwits who just do not get it. Or barbaric natives who do not grasp what the Good Lord expects of them: hard work, use the material the Good Lord has provided you with. To live respectfully of what nature has to offer? The lazy bums, no wonder they have never amounted to anything.
The Native-Americans in the novel dying of disease, addiction, poverty, violence and years and years of hatred is no surprise but still confronts. Proulx shows how some Mi’Kmaw survive by retreating into the real wilderness. With their knowledge of plants and wildlife they can make do. Proulx also shows civilization coming closer and closer, leaving the Mi’Kmaw no choice but to incorporate Western methods into their lives. Those who go for the easier profit tend to get the most dangerous jobs chopping trees, are killed in terrible accidents or get addicted to alcohol. Those who remain loyal to their life style make ends meet, just.
Barkskins is an ode to the forest and a call for action to respectfully treat the few original forests that remain. I felt the novel overall was too long-winded due to the many enumerations. In those chapters Proulx gave over to her love for writing she effortlessly showed her talent. Those chapters and the ode to the forest may not make for the best novel ever written, they do make for an important one.