A New York Times Notable Book
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year
From the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain,” comes the New York Times bestselling epic about the demise of the world’s forests: “Barkskins is grand entertainment in the tradition of Dickens and Tolstoy…the crowning achievement of Annie Proulx’s distinguished career, but also perhaps the greatest environmental novel ever written” (San Francisco Chronicle).
In the late seventeenth century two young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a native woman and their descendants live trapped between two cultures. But Duquet runs away, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Annie Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.
“A stunning, bracing, full-tilt ride through three hundred years of US and Canadian history…with the type of full-immersion plot that keeps you curled in your chair, reluctant to stop reading” (Elle), Barkskins showcases Proulx’s inimitable genius of creating characters who are so vivid that we follow them with fierce attention. “This is Proulx at the height of her powers as an irreplaceable American voice” (Entertainment Weekly, Grade A), and Barkskins “is an awesome monument of a book” (The Washington Post)—“the masterpiece she was meant to write” (The Boston Globe). As Anthony Doerr says, “This magnificent novel possesses the dark humor of The Shipping News and the social awareness of ‘Brokeback Mountain.’”
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About the Author
Annie Proulx is the author of eight books, including the novel The Shipping News and the story collection Close Range. Her many honors include a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and a PEN/Faulkner award. Her story “Brokeback Mountain,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Her most recent novel is Barkskins. She lives in Seattle.
Date of Birth:August 22, 1935
Place of Birth:Norwich, Connecticut
Education:Attended Colby College in the 1950s. B.A., University of Vermont, 1969; M.A., Sir George Williams University, 1973
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Barkskins includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain,” comes her masterwork: an epic, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests. From Canada to America, China to New Zealand, West to East, across history and the world, Barkskins takes the reader through generations of risk, love, empire building, disaster, toil, hope and progress, originating with two French adventurers who first make their way into the New World in the seventeenth century.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Why does Barkskins begin with Charles Duquet and René Sel? Discuss their similarities and differences. How do these two characters influence not only their descendants but also the three-hundred-year course of the narrative?
2. Monsieur Trépagny says, “Men must change this land in order to live in it,” and “To be a man is to clear the forest” (p. 17). Why does he believe this? What does René seem to believe about the forest and about being a man?
3. Wuqua’s garden, the Garden of Delightful Confusion, “pulled something inside Duquet as a child pulls a toy with a string” (p. 91) and stirs him “with an indefinable sensation” (p. 92). Why is Duquet, typically jaded and unimpressed, so moved by his experiences in China?
4. After Duquet wounds one of the trespassers, a boy, on his pine property, why do the boy’s cries of “Help. Me.” and the gaze of the owl in the trees (p. 137) drive Duquet into a murderous fury? Why do the attempted theft and the boy enrage him so?
5. As René’s children Zoë, Noë, Achille, Theotiste and Elphège make their way to Mi’kma’ki, the “journey was rough underfoot and circuitous in their minds” (p. 168). Each hopes for different things and changes in different ways. How is each child affected? Why is Mi’kmaw country so powerful for them?
6. When Achille encounters a whale while fishing with his friends, the whale says to him, in Sosep’s voice, “You are not” (p. 185). After losing his family to the English, Achille claims, “I hunt no more. My life here is finished. I am not” (p. 195). Why does this phrase stay with Achille? What does it mean?
7. When Kuntaw meets Beatrix and she says, “I need you, Indian man. Follow,” he feels that he stumbles “out of the knotted forest and onto a shining path” (p. 203). Yet when Beatrix’s health fails, “when she most needed him . . . he veered away from her” (p. 287). Why do they pull away from each other in the end, Beatrix falling in love with the doctor and Kuntaw fixating on the “One Who Would Come”?
8. Beatrix explains to Dr. Mukhtar that she can express affection only by teaching and offering books (p. 294). Where else is this connection between education and affection present in Barkskins? What other characters show their love this way?
9. The day after their wedding, Posey and James Duke discover they may be ill-suited, and James insists, “ ‘We must talk all of this out.’ He believed in reason, though it was unreasonable to do so” (p. 372). How does this counterbalance of reason and unreason characterize their relationship?
10. Why, after all the tragedies Jinot endures, is it the women’s rejection of him in the kumara field that makes “the old, smiling, merry Jinot” evaporate, replaced by an “aging man who had known sorrow and difficulty and now, painful rejection” (p. 428)? Why these women and in this place?
11. Posey tells Lavinia that “if you know from experience what others must do to earn a living you will be a better person with a deeper knowledge of others. I have no use for the weak and helpless woman. You may need independence in your life, for women are too often taken advantage of—no one knows this better than I” (p. 491). Later, Lavinia is inspired by Angélique and her hammer and the image of an “army of young women advancing into the forests” (p. 507). How do these influences shape Lavinia and her actions throughout the rest of her life?
12. When Aaron Sel learns of his father Junot’s death in New Zealand, where Aaron refused to go, he feels “an interior ripping as though something was pulling at his lungs” and says, “I was a bad and stupid person before, maybe I still am that person but I think I am different.” Peter Sel replies that “A man can get better” (p. 599). How does Aaron make himself better? What does he mean when he says, “I drink the shadow now. I find it good” (p. 601).
13. Throughout Barkskins we see the healing powers of the trees and the forests, from the Mi’kmaq and their medicines to Conrad Duke finding peace in trees after World War II (p. 664) to Afghanistan vet Tom who sees his fallen brothers in larches (p. 710). In what other ways do the forests heal people?
14. How does “runaway Egga, the direct descendant of Charles Duquet and René Sel” (p. 622) reflect his forbears? How is he different from them?
15. “In every life there are events that reshape one’s sense of existence. Afterward, all is different and the past is dimmed.” (p. 49) Discuss moments like this for characters throughout the novel. What are your favorite moments? Which made you laugh? Which were unexpected?
16. Is it fitting that the novel closes with Sapatisia Sel and her forest restoration group? Where is Onehube driving? Why does Sapatisia groan, “Oh God, oh God! Put out the moon!” (p. 713)?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Watch a documentary such as Forbidden Forest, If a Tree Falls, The Burning Season or The Magical Forest to learn more about forest conservation, forestry practices and the lengths some go to in order to protect the ecosystem around the world.
2. Is there a forest near you? What is its history? How old is it? What changes has it undergone? Are there any conservation efforts underway? Do some research with your group to better understand the natural history in your local community.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
She opened the world of trees, deforestation, life filled decades. Annie Proulx is the master. You will be thoroughly entertained while learning a new language. Don't miss this book.
This was a very complicated novel. In the beginning the story of Sels and Duquet was challenging. Not knowing any French, I was constantly using the lookup feature on my nook to get meanings of words. Context clues were not always obvious, and I am a bit OCD perhaps about understanding what I am reading. After perhaps 1/3 of the book it was much easier, because the central characters were not totally french. Usually a voracious reader, especially with historical content, I cannot wait to finish a book, to see how the story resolves. The family story was intriguing. I was determined to complete it, but it was a chore. I am disinclined to purchase any more by this author.
Annie Proulx at her absolute finest. Although a weighty novel, both in subject matter and length, I grew increasingly disappointed as I neared the final pages because I did not want to leave this multi-generational story. Proulx is certainly on the shortlist of any conversation about America's greatest living writers, and this novel is an example of why. Like Accordion Crimes before it, this novel is really more a collection of vignettes (or short stories, as parts of the novel have been previously published as short fiction) centered on generations of the same family deforesting North America. Read the novel. Don't let its length or subject matter scare you. The warnings in this novel, as well as the history it unfolds, are blended perfectly into tales of characters, many of whom are raping the land and treating people abysmally, who you root for and shudder with when tragedy strikes. I could expound, but why? Read the novel. Just read it.
I really liked this book. I loved The Shipping News and was looking forward to this book. It did not disappoint. The novel spans over 300 years from the early times in New France, old Europe, the American colonies, China, the American westward expansion, New Zealand and South America. The story follows two penniless Frenchmen who came to the New World to work as indentured servants for a feudal type lord and were to work for three years as wood cutters in exchange for land. The story follows these two men and their descendants. The novel goes into the challenges these two men faced and their very different paths. As a lover of historical fiction, I loved the historical side including how the settlers arrived, their interactions with the Native Americans, the fur trade and other trades with the old World, the trading and sea journeys to exotic locales, as well as the brutality of the settlers lives and the challenges of working under extremely harsh conditions. The book also goes into the challenges of the westward expansion and maintaining a family business from colonial to modern times. Most importantly, the book goes into detail on the impact of deforesting on the planet from the late 17th century to the present as well as on the lives and cultures of the indigenous people that lived on the land. The characters were very well developed and there were many as the novel spanned three centuries. There are family trees at the back as it was somewhat hard to keep all characters clear. This is not a book for everyone as it is long and did get a little slow in parts, but overall a very interesting and thought provoking read.
I do not have the time now to say the amount of fine things i can about this book. My relationship to the flora of this planet has intensified. I will be better connected to the growth surrounding me because of this book; these compacted stories of the peoples who existed when there was harmony amongst the living things through the capitalists who plundered the earth and set up the decline that we are presently in....the eddy that will suck us down to the end. Well worth the read.
ANNE PROUD IS A MASTER AT TELLING A LONG, COMPLICATED STORY THAT HOLDS YOUR ATENTION.THEBOOK WAS EXCEPTIONAL.
Simply...DULL. Nothing more to say. I deleted, sadly.