Annie Proulx


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Barkskins Summary

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Barkskins (2016), Annie Proulx’s work of historical fiction, begins in seventeenth-century America. It tells the story of two young Frenchmen who become woodcutters in exchange for land from a feudal lord and the challenges their families face for generations to come. The book received mixed reviews upon publication, but the critical response was generally positive; the book was praised for its treatment of modern-day ecological threats, settler colonialism, and deforestation.

Two Frenchmen, Charles Duquet and René Sel are struggling as poverty-stricken servants. They arrive in a wild, vast forest deep in what is known as New France, hoping to secure opportunities. The landowner, Claude Trépagny, makes them an offer. He needs space for a new maize plot, which will involve felling a lot of trees. Trépagny tells Duquet and Sel that they can have their own plot of land in three years if they cut away the necessary forest for him. The boys agree and become woodcutters, or barkskins.

However, Duquet decides he can secure better opportunities elsewhere and leaves Sel behind. He runs off to join the fur trade, leaving his angry master and landowner in the lurch. Sel decides to stay and fulfill his promise to Trépagny. In the meantime, Trépagny has his own ambitions of marrying a French noblewoman and ridding himself of his current wife. To secure this, he makes Sel marry his current wife, so he can purse the noblewoman. In exchange for his cooperation, Sel receives land double what he was originally promised.

The story then cuts to Duquet and his life in the fur trade. It doesn’t take long for Duquet to realize that, while he makes money selling fur, he left the real money behind in the timber trade. He doesn’t, however, want to go back to Trépagny to face his anger or punishment. Instead, he decides to set off for China, selling his furs for top value. He plans to earn enough silver to begin his own forest enterprise. He becomes wealthy enough to do so.

Duquet befriends a Dutch captain, Piet Roos. He wants a business relationship with Roos, and so marries Roos’s daughter, Cornelia. Shortly after this, he adopts two young orphan boys, Jan and Nicolaus. Cornelia quickly gives birth to another son, Outger. Finally, upon returning to New France, they adopt their last son, Bernard.

Duquet then sets about buying woodlands in Maine, but soon thieves steal his timber. He kills the thief after learning he works for Dud McBogle, a local mill owner. Shortly thereafter, he changes his name to Charles Duke and sets up Duke & Sons. His business grows quickly, and he soon has the resources to enter the shipbuilding industry, which is becoming lucrative.

Many years on, Duke plans to establish a partnership with McBogle, but McBogle kills him in retribution for murdering the boy. Duke’s children have no choice but to continue the business on their own. They do well and keep up good relationships with both French and English businessmen for the rest of their lives.

The story then moves on to years later, when Duke’s great-grandson, James, is old enough to join the family business. James is attracted to a local woman who is already married, and he plots a way to get rid of her husband. He takes advantage of the man’s mentally ill state and has him framed for murder, which takes him out of the country. Once he later dies, James is free to marry the woman.

The story moves on to James’s daughter, Lavinia, being born. At this point, the forest is being consumed by farmland, and James plots how to keep the business running. He expands into Michigan, and soon his daughter is old enough to show an interest in the timber trade. Lavinia takes over upon James’s death and expands into Chicago. She investigates which living family members can inherit the business and discovers Sel’s line are the only options. She is displeased and looks to instead merge with another business, becoming Duke and Breitsprecher. She marries Dieter Breitsprecher and they have a son, Charley.

Charley becomes a conservationist. He visits Brazil to study the trees there, and he learns why it is important to plant seeds for the next generation. Meanwhile, the 1929 Wall Street Crash devalues the company, and no one is keen to take it over – so ends the empire.

Sel’s line is more successful. By the novel’s close, Sel’s living offspring are also passionate activists and conservationists and decide to learn as much as they can about ecology to help save their local environment and the wider area. The novel closes with a sense of hope for the future, and it reminds us of the seeds to be planted for the next generation of both families – and ourselves.