This book review appeared in the Lowell Sun on Sept. 27, 2016.
Annie Proulx Says Don't Break the Forest
by Paul Marion
"Barkskins" by Annie Proulx (717 pp., Scribner, $32.00)
I once stood next to Annie Proulx for a group photograph at a Franco-American writers gathering in New Hampshire. At the time a rising author with a novel and a story collection, she would be a cultural celebrity with The Shipping News and a Pulitzer Prize just two years later.
Her willingness to drive over from Vermont to join other Franco writers with little or no reputation proved she cared about her Canadian roots. She wanted to connect.
She writes about her identity, half French-Canadian, in her book Bird Cloud (2014), describing "rootless people who have no national identity" and quoting Jack Kerouac about the "horrible homelessness of all French-Canadians abroad in America."
With her new novel, "Barkskins," Proulx turns that attitude around with an epic tale that fills in centuries of blanks and provides a rough-as-bark narrative of the industrious French making a place for themselves in North America.
All this at the expense of the seemingly limitless forests and furred animals of the northeast and later timber spreads overseas.
I was astonished by the sentences in The Shipping News, language that is extravagant, muscular, and often shimmering in its freshness, which also holds true for this book.
Touted as her masterwork, the new story follows Rene Sel and Charles Duquet from their scrappy start in 1690s New France (Kanata to the native peoples) through their respective descendant lines into the 2000s.
Ambitious settlers, unlike the tribal occupants, believed the vast dense boreal forest of eastern Canada and New England had been waiting for someone to dominate Nature and turn the splendid trees into money.
In her entertaining and instructive book, Proulx winds the clock back on the cause of today's climate change and has enough pages to bring us full circle to the contemporary Sels doing reforestation from Nova Scotia to Sumatra.
Through the decades, the Duquets morph into the Dukes as their rapacious business empire expands. There is enough bad karma in their genealogical cart to warrant the end Proulx scripts for them.
The Sels, married early into the local Micmac culture, fare less well materially but rely on the woods and forest wisdom on their journey.
Superb in her rendering of places, Proulx moves the reader from Quebec and Boston to Amsterdam, China and New Zealand, taking us through wilderness, pre-industrial cities, and oceans.
When a hole showed up in the ozone due to the tonnage of chemicals that humans sprayed into the air, somebody lamented, "We broke the sky."
That hole appears finally to be closing according to NASA.
Proulx's driven and at times stumbling characters help us see how breaking the forest to spur progress is ruinous.
In the end, the scientist Sapatisia Sel cries out, "Can't we try again?"