October 8th 2016


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Reaper mows down first child in the Low Countries

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coalition still gridlocked despite foreign success

EDITORIAL Trump v Clinton: choice between bad and worse

GENERATION RENT The economics behind political unrest

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Kevin Andrews: defend marriage on principles

WA DRUG POLICY Forum told intervention works with cannabis, ice

OPINION "Deconstruction" fosters contempt of its object

POPULATION POLITICS Philanthropy as a weapon of mass destruction

SUPERANNUATION Take away the number you first thought of ...

HISTORY Germany and its long history of immigration

CINEMA The online madding crowd: Nerve

BOOK REVIEW Tale of forestry dynasty not quite pulp quality

BOOK REVIEW Roman refresher

LETTERS

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BOOK REVIEW
Tale of forestry dynasty not quite pulp quality




News Weekly, October 8, 2016

 

BARKSKINS

by Annie Proulx

4th Estate, London, 2016
Paperback: 736 pages
Price: AUD$34.95

 

Reviewed by Jeffry Babb

 

Finding a novel with more gore than Barkskins would be difficult – Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian perhaps?

North America’s woods were a dangerous place in the old days. Many people died in bizarre circumstances; dying an unnatural death was not surprising when men felled giant trees, swinging nothing more than an axe. A good axman could fell a pine tree in less than a minute.

Barkskins is about the unpredictable nature of fate and the inevitability of death. Life is full of random incidents, any one of which could carry you off, says Annie Proulx. Fate is blind; any person, rich or poor, can succumb to any one of a variety deadly incidents: disease, accident, foul play, entanglement, malice, revenge. Those who have seen The Revenant will have some idea what to expect.

Annie Proulx (pronounced “pru”) is of mixed English and French Canadian heritage. She is one of America’s foremost writers. Her best-selling novel The Shipping News introduced her to a wider readership than one would expect for a literary creation. Her prose is lively and idiosyncratic.

Following The Shipping News, Proulx produced That Old Ace in the Hole, about life in the Texas Panhandle. This book was a lively tale of oilmen and ranchers. The plot was full of skullduggery, mostly good natured. Her short story Brokeback Mountain, about a secretive homosexual relationship between two cowboys, formed the basis for the eponymous Academy Award-winning feature film, helmed by Ang Lee and starring the late Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Annie Proulx is a woman who writes about men. She understands the complexity of male relationships. Homosexuality is not one of her major themes but emotional intimacy is. So is the importance of family. Barkskins is about two – the Sel family and the Duquet, later Duke, family, both with French origins. The cast of characters is vast, spread over the frontiers of French Canada and the north-eastern United States, before borders were even defined.

The brutal ongoing forest war between the British and the French, with their Indian allies, is an important subplot. King Philip’s War in New England, between the British colonists and the Indians in the latter part of the 17h century, was the last desperate attempt to repel the English settlers in the north-eastern colonies. King Philip’s War is also known as the First Indian War. Like many things in this book, it is in the background, and not specifically identified.

Barkskins is about the forests of North America and how they were reduced to planks to fuel the hunger for the settlement of America. The book follows the fortunes of Duke and Co, a tale of greed, destruction and untimely death. Family and money are important above all else. The Duke company remains in family hands for 300 years. The Sel family remained Indian to the core.

The Indians could not resist the white men’s flour and meat. In the end, the Indians were reduced to doing the lowliest jobs around the settlements. Their lives were worth little. A good Indian axeman could make a living cutting the forest trees or juggling jammed logs in the rivers, for which Indians were believed to be ideally suited. Their lives were often short – most lasted for no more than seven years in the forest.

The Dukes and the Sels were distantly related, but the Dukes were the ones who made their fortune out of timber. As the rail lines went West and the sodbusters opened up the virgin prairie, the Dukes followed them, providing all manner of wood products. The Dukes sold flat-pack prefabricated houses, not unlike Ikea.

The dark and threatening forests of North America seem to have limitless menace, but the pioneers’ hewed civilisation out of the wilderness. The forest helped build North America by supplying the raw materials that fueled the explosive growth of the new North American nations. Eventually, farmers took over from where the lumbermen left off.

Proulx avoids being preachy about the destruction of the forests until the very end. One can sympathise with the Indians who dwelled in the forests, but their tale is little different from that of other indigenous peoples who were seduced by the white man’s flour and beef, not to forget whisky. Life on the frontier was brutal and many did not survive long. Of the frontiersmen, the Scotch Irish are singled out as the most ferocious warriors and the most able to tolerate pain.

In all, this book is a good read but it does start off with a bang and end with a whimper. It is difficult for any author to maintain the narrative tempo for over 700 pages, but Proulx does well. Readers who like Annie Proulx will enjoy this book. If this is the first time you have encountered Annie Proulx, you will probably want to read more of her books.


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