#REVIEW: Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

I’m going to be honest here— I’m mostly writing this review because I finished this book last night and otherwise I don’t have much of anything to talk about today. We spent $600 on a new snowblower, so northern Indiana has me to thank in a few months when we make it through the winter without a single flake of snow falling. I had Taco Bell for dinner. That’s about all I’ve got.

But yeah. This book. I bought it because Annie Proulx is from Wyoming, and I don’t know if you’re familiar with Wyoming at all, but it turns out there are not a lot of authors from there, so I was not exactly presented with an array of riches to choose from here. I could have picked The Shipping News or Brokeback Mountain, but this one sounded a bit more interesting so I went with it.

Barkskins is historical fiction, beginning in what would eventually be Maine in the 1600s and continuing until the modern day, although the majority of the book takes place before the 20th century, much less the 21st. It follows two branches of descendants from the same man, one of which is treated as legitimate and inherits the logging company he creates, and one … well, isn’t and doesn’t. That said, the two groups of people don’t really know about each other for the majority of the book, so it’s not as if the less fortunate family members are grousing about their lack of inheritance or anything like that. This ends up making the book almost more of a history of this fictional company more than it is the actual people, following the people who run the company in some chapters and people affected by the company (and, well, all of the rest of the logging companies) systematically clearcutting and decimating America’s forests on the other. See that quote on the cover about this book being the “greatest environmental novel ever written”? I’m not a hundred percent convinced of the superlative (although I admit I have read precious few “environmental novels”) but the description is certainly accurate.

It’s an interesting read, although at 700+ pages you should be prepared for what you’re getting into. I would think this is probably more valuable to people interested in historical fiction than anything else; you shouldn’t get too attached to any particular character as the book is going to be moving on in 50-60 pages no matter what, and Proulx is not at all shy about abruptly murdering her characters with no particular attention paid to, say, resolving any narrative conflicts associated with them, because, well, sometimes in the 1800s you just stepped on a fucking nail and died and that was all there was to it. Proulx’s writing has enough verisimilitude to it to make one suspect that she has access to a time machine; her command of the little details of living two or three centuries ago is incredibly impressive, especially considering how much of the book is embedded in either French-speaking or Native American Mi’kmaq peoples. It’s really something else. If it were a couple hundred pages shorter I’d be shouting from the rooftops about it, but, well, books this big aren’t for everyone and if you didn’t want to make the time investment necessary for a 700-page novel I would not look askance upon you.

Well, maybe a little, but I wouldn’t say anything about it.

Published by

Luther M. Siler

The author of SKYLIGHTS, THE BENEVOLENCE ARCHIVES and several other books.