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I read an impressive blog post by Gwen Tuinman about How Settlers Cleared the Land in North America. The post is very well researched and would be an interesting read for anybody who is curious about how the vast expanse of the North American continent came to be cleared of forests. Gwen suggested that I read Barkskins by Annie Proulx. Fortunately my library provided me with a copy (I avoid buying books of I can) and my 3 hour daily bus commute gives me plenty of reading time. This is a big book!
Proulx begins with two poor French men arriving in ‘Canada’ in 1693. René Sel and Charles Duquet are endentured to work for a landholder for 3 years and in return will receive a package of land. The landholder is unscrupulous and things quickly go awry. René Sel stays and diligently applies his skills with an axe to clearing as much of the forest as he can. The vast forests of ‘Canada’ are considered inexhaustible and replenishable.
Sel marries a Mi’kmaq (excuse my spelling) indigenous woman and the remainder of the novel follows their descendants through difficult lives. Some of the Sel’s try to ‘return’ to the Mi’kmaq way of life but they face brutal incursions by Europeans and their descendants onto their traditional lands. Some eek an existence on the periphery of the rapidly growing towns. Some devote their strong bodies to clearing the forests. It’s distressing reading about the destruction of the forests and the Mi’kmaq culture.
In the meantime Charles Duquet builds a family empire from nothing using wit, deceit and cunning. The book follows the Duquet’s (who change their name to Duke) then Sel’s in turn. The Duke’s do not evoke compassion in the reader. They are greedy and lack empathy. They build a vast company that is based on timber.
In 2013 the book closes with 3 descendants of René Sel (who are also descendants of Charles Duquet!) working to study and replant forests. As a nice touch, their working group is funded by an heir of the Duquet fortune.
Proulx keeps the pace moving to cover 320 years of two family dynasties in one novel. In each section she develops one or two characters to keep the reader interested. It’s not a riveting book but it was interesting to read about the clearing of the North American continent, the destruction of the Mi’kmaq culture, and the building of the Canadian and USA nations. I’ve visited the USA a few times and I’ve craned my neck to try to see the tops of Redwood and Sequoia trees. I admit that it did not occur to me that deliberate deforestation had been performed across the continent. It was also interesting that Proulx set a small part of the novel among the towering Kauri trees in New Zealand and another indigenous culture.
Thank you to Gwen for the recommendation.
This review in the Guardian is worth reading.