Barkskins is an awesome monument of a book, a spectacular survey of America’s forests dramatized by a cast of well-hewn characters ... such is the magnetism of Proulx’s narrative that there’s no resisting her thundering cascade of stories. By drilling deep into the woods that enabled this country to conquer the world, Proulx has laid out the whole history of American capitalism and its rapacious destruction of the land ... With its dozens of characters spread over hundreds of years, Barkskins could easily have collapsed into a great muddle of voices, but each of them is so distinct and so brilliantly choreographed that they never blur ... a towering new work of environmental fiction.
A multitudinous cast of characters troops through the novel, the personality and appearance of each portrayed with Dickensian exuberance ... The novel’s scope is huge and encompassing, its vision panoramic at times, at others focused minutely on all the doings and undoings of individuals: those left ravaged by the destruction of their way of life, and those engaged in the business enterprise at the heart of this book, from logging camp and river transport to sawmill on up to the boardroom. The novel is quite simply tremendous and, of Annie Proulx’s many fine works, Barkskins stands, in my view, as her masterpiece.
Proulx employs a sophisticated narrative strategy of oscillating focus. Sometimes the techno-commercial practices of a given era are foregrounded ... Annie Proulx is on the side of the angels. We need more writers like her to hammer home the message that we had better stop mistreating one another and our planet. Unfortunately, hammering is just what she does ... The whole novel suffers such two-dimensionality ... Worse yet are her stylistic infelicities. Sometimes her Native American characters speak a cigar-store pidgin to one another, only to drop it further down on the same page ... But although Barkskins comes out poorly when considered line by line, many characters linger in the mind ... Proulx is particularly effective in conveying the effect of one generation on the next.
It would be unfair to accuse the novel of being a victim of its research because Proulx engages with what she knows on more visceral terms than a writer who has simply alighted on an interesting subject. The pacing of her narrative, with each generation reflecting the further depredations of man against nature, its impact on the indigenous population and the twists and turns of colonial power, delivers a slowly gathering power, accented with the dread of irrevocable change ... [The] slippage of present into past is fiendishly hard to pull off, requiring an incredibly delicately calibrated manipulation of the reader’s empathy. Weaving in commentary on the ramifications of vast historical power struggles and changes makes it even more difficult – and it is clear that Proulx is profoundly committed to the novel’s ecological message; put simply, that a cavalier and rapacious treatment of the earth, and of the people who are most closely attuned to its needs and stewardship, is exceptionally difficult, if not impossible, to reverse. But that can make for didactic reading.
Gone are all traces of Ms. Proulx’s flowery ornamentation, and in their place we find a prose of directness, clarity, rhythmic power and oaken solidity. Barkskins is a potently imagined, if occasionally meandering, chronicle of mankind’s dealings with the North American forests ... The immense scale of the novel means we view its enormous cast as from a great height. There’s a dispassionate, easy-come-easy-go quality to most of these characters, who are cut down in life as quickly as a stand of white pines: by shipwreck, logging accidents, cholera and even Maori cannibals. Their ephemerality makes Barkskins a national epic without anything like a hero. In Ms. Proulx’s vigorous telling, the great American themes of progress and enterprise are reframed into an account of shortsighted plunder.
Barkskins is not a polemic. The beauty of Proulx’s book is how it illuminates the lives of characters who have been affected by this foundational exploitation. With so many pages, and so many characters, a reader can trace various evolutions of viewpoint, such as on the question of the colonizer’s relation to the colonized ... Proulx says she researched the book for more than 30 years, and nary a page goes by without a few exquisitely observed historical details ... Lavinia proves to be one of the most brilliantly rendered and memorable characters Annie Proulx has ever invented ... Proulx establishes in Barkskins a narrative so grand in spatial and temporal scope, so broad in theme, that it cannot conceivably be strictly American. Her pitch-perfect sentences, instead, encompass the entire Western world, and its ever-growing concern with ecological and environmental change.
No dirge, it's a bracing, full-tilt ride through 300 years of U.S. and Canadian history ... The novel has a satisfying global sweep, with the type of full-immersion plot that keeps you curled in your chair, reluctant to stop reading ... Societal change and dissolution are Proulx's recurrent themes, and in that respect in particular, Barkskins is a tour de force.
Slaughter of every variety is on Ms. Proulx’s mind. Barkskins — the title refers to woodcutters — is a Baedeker of doom. Characters die from cholera and measles and smallpox, from shipwrecks and scalpings and botched amputations and occult tortures. More often, they perish in grisly logging mishaps. Ms. Proulx is adept at this culling. She has a lesser knack for first bringing her men and women to life. Barkskins rarely warms in your hands. Its ideas are more finely beveled than its people, never a good sign. Ms. Proulx favors 'characters' rather than character, as Alfred Kazin complained about John Irving. (Among the names here: Blade Scugog, Dud McBogle and Hudson Van Dipp.) Watching its action is like strolling around the world’s largest ant farm. There’s more wriggling than drama ... At its best, it is vivid, mean and wordy, as if the film The Revenant had been annotated by Bob Dylan ... Op-ed sound bites light the way toward this novel’s truly abysmal ending, in which a modern scientist solemnly warns about global warming that 'a great crisis is just ahead' and a woman wants to cry out 'The forests, the trees, they can change everything!' You feel your synapses, as did the forests, turn to pulp.
If all of this sounds quite heavy, Proulx manages to propel the plot along, lighten it with moments of levity and a continuous stream of fascinating historical details ... Proulx explores the ramifications of this slow-moving war over hundreds of years, on an intimate, human scale. She vilifies neither side ... In such a sprawling novel, there are periods of lethargy, where the text is weighed down with too many characters ... And yet, once consumed, Proulx's novel will leave readers with new perspectives on a familiar history.
Although Barkskins is full of strange and vibrant humanity, that 'vast invisible web' is its central character. The woods are alive...The long and slow sickness — humanity — that ravages this gasping, living place is the book's theme. The humans that pass over the earth flame brightly and then disappear. A book with this many people flitting through it could be hard to keep track of, but Proulx sketches each person with vigorous, unforgettable strokes ... It is that wonder at monumental nature, and simultaneous grief at its diminishment, that animates Barkskins. So, read it, absorb its urgent message — and try not to think about all the trees that probably went into those 713 pages.
...Barkskins just might be her masterpiece ... [Proulx's] gifts prove uniquely suited to the epic Barkskins. Proulx captures characters in a few quick brushstrokes, and makes you care about them with a single, apt image or action ... Toward the end of Barkskins, as Proulx speeds from 1886 to 2013, there are a few places where characters rush past, introduced and dead within the course of a few sentences. But this feels like the spirit bead of American Indian artists, including one mistake as an act of humility that ends up showing off the genius of the whole. While Proulx’s Wyoming stories bore a bleak outlook, the ending of Barkskins veers toward hope, improbable hope.
...ambitious and essential ... Proulx’s unabashed critique of our headlong pillaging of the Earth is timely and angry and unequivocally political. But Barkskins is also a grand entertainment in the tradition of Dickens and Tolstoy, though Proulx has more style and panache than either of the old masters ... Proulx’s intelligence and outrage are on full display, and her ability to translate her rage is brilliant ... Whether she’s describing a forest fire or an ax head, a trans-Atlantic sea crossing or the peculiar qualities of a type of wood, she captures it all in surprising and masterful ways. And it’s in the finer details that her genius shines brightest ... For such an enormous cast, not many of the characters ever begin to feel like intimates, which, considering their great depth and nuance, is too bad ... Barkskins will surely survive as the crowning achievement of Proulx’s distinguished career, but also as perhaps the greatest environmental novel ever written.
Although Proulx is clearly sympathetic to environmentalism, she is experienced and sophisticated enough as a writer to avoid mere preachiness ... [Barkskins] is enormously eventful, and the events it describes are often surprising and suggestive — but despite its old-fashioned size and scope, readers hoping for the immersive, plot-driven satisfactions of the great 19th-century novels are likely to be disappointed. Proulx is comfortable with loose ends and dangling plot lines, and even when she clearly sees an opportunity to bring events to a neat dramatic climax, as with the question of inheritance towards the end of the novel, she tends not to take it ... It is also, because it needs to cover so much ground, very, very quick. Characters are frequently introduced, developed and then killed off, all within a chapter or two. When this pacing works, it feels exciting, energetic and in keeping with the novel’s emphasis on the vast and disorienting changes brought about by European settlement. When it doesn’t work so well, it can feel too offhand and sketchy, as if depth is being sacrificed for breadth and speed ... Proulx aficionados, of which there are many, will still love it, but the less committed will probably find that its pleasures are mixed.
Except for a few false notes (in particular a very clumsily sex scene, comes to mind), each of the book’s seven hundred pages demonstrates Proulx’s mastery of straightforward yet deeply imaginative prose ... Despite Proulx’s strong writing, Barkskins lacks momentum, and its length makes this more evident than it otherwise might be. The narrative is episodic rather than tightly plotted (apart from a bit of intrigue about the rightful heirs to the Duke family business, and even that quickly dispensed), and as a result the tension that would enliven the novel’s slow, sleepy pulse is missing ... Many of the settings and personalities feel shallow. Missing is the interiority of the characters, an evocation of how individual perceptions create subtle shifts of thought and feeling.
Proulx's delicious prose is often at its most vivid when she's writing about the harshness of frontier life and the tremendous dangers of its occupations, and that's certainly true of this book ... Barkskins has a large cast — there are four pages of family trees in the back of the book — but that's a showcase for Proulx's gift for creating lively, complex characters. Even minor characters get memorable descriptions ... As the decades passed, I often found myself wishing to know more about one character or another, but the author braids all those people and all their plot lines together so skillfully that the book becomes a satisfying whole. Proulx's style is inimitably her own, but it echoes here with those of great influences: Dickens, Melville, Twain, Faulkner and more.
... challenging and intensely satisfying ... Proulx populates her story with dozens of actors, each sketched with the immediacy and oddball clarity that have always made her people the most memorable parts of her novels and short stories ... Proulx's talent for bringing individuals alive with a single perfectly-turned line has never been sharper than in these pages ... It's a completely masterful performance, the greatest thing this great novelist has ever written.
Even though it’s 713 pages, it often recalls some of the Pulitzer Prize winner’s best short stories, including 'Brokeback Mountain,' given her ability to infuse loss and heartbreak and beauty into the sparsest of sentences ... Pages melt away as readers zoom through the decades. Proulx’s story is bigger than any one man, one death, or even one culture: It’s about the effect civilization and society have had on the land. In her magical way, Proulx leaves the reader with an impression of not only a collection of people, but our people and the country that shaped us as we shaped it. This is Proulx at the height of her powers as an irreplaceable American voice.
...[a] hugely disappointing and seemingly interminable novel, populated by hundreds of nearly indistinguishable characters. They come and go faster than the trees, whose death by a thousand cuts is continually decried ... embarrassingly overwritten prose, light years removed from Proulx's spellbinding The Shipping News ... 'The forest was a distant smudge,' one character reflects. He could have been describing Barkskins itself.
This could be appallingly didactic, but Barkskins is miles from that. That’s because its characters are never one-dimensional — even the worst of them are complex, their greed often driven by insecurity and loss, their individual lives too brief for them to apprehend the full scope of their collective destructiveness. Nobody is at fault; everybody is at fault. The cigarette companies are full of wonderful mothers and fathers ... Barkskins is masterful, full of an urgent, tense lyricism, its plotting beautifully unexpected, its biographical narratives flowing into one another like the seasons ... It’s not that Barkskins is perfect — some of the later eras she describes feel rushed and sketchy — but that it’s so consistently vital.
Proulx satirizes the hubristic belief that we can swim against history’s rip current without getting sucked under and out to sea ... Proulx seeks to fundamentally alter our understanding of American history, asking us to consider the transnational aspects of New World economic development, the ancient class structures from which that economic development emerged, and the environmental impact of it all. That Proulx does this without the usual dopey Romanticism of most ecological writing is astonishing ... Barkskins perfects the balance between 'the study of history and marshaling of facts' and the careful portrayal of individual lives.
The best thing about Barkskins, Annie Proulx’s hefty fifth novel, is its ambition, sweep and scope. The worst thing: its ambition, sweep and scope ... Although Proulx often holds her characters at arm’s length and commits some formulaic writing when introducing minor characters more as caricatures, she writes about nature with respect. Particularly when she is describing the night sky, her prose breaks through into poetry ... This historical novel is as sweeping, and as flawed, as its subjects. The reader feels well-educated, but somewhat exhausted, at novel’s end.
With Dickensian sprawl, Barkskins covers the disparate lives of the families spawned by the two penniless immigrants, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, to describe how our vast forests were decimated in a gradual march westward ... Barkskins — a title that refers to all who have some communion with trees — leaves no board unturned as it covers the industry that brought us plywood, cheap paper and prefab housing. This puts pressure on the dialogue, which sometimes sounds less like people in conversation than narrators on the History Channel. But this occasional flatness is a peccadillo that’s swept aside by Proulx’s stunning stylistic gifts. She is a writer’s writer, and one whose deep interest in history provides the long view of how our environmental recklessness has brought us to a point of reckoning.
With gorgeous imagery, clean prose and remarkable sensitivity, she recounts the wholesale destruction of the rich, wild woodlands of the world while illustrating the constructs of civilization and the paradoxes of human nature that have brought us to the brink of environmental collapse ... In a nutshell, Barkskins is The Giving Tree for grown-ups; a much larger, much more complex version of Shel Silverstein’s children’s classic. Both works depict a state of harmony between man and nature destroyed by the insatiable desire for material wealth and end with a terrifying image ... I would have been happy to keep reading for another 700 pages, but just as the novel hits its stride around the Industrial Revolution, the action accelerates dramatically, skipping generations and speeding through scenes with characters of whom we know little beyond their ancestry. It’s tempting to speculate that this abrupt change came about at the insistence of an impatient editor or because of the author’s advancing age, but it’s far more likely that Ms. Proulx intended the adjustment in tempo to serve as a forest metaphor.
Annie Proulx scores once again with the captivating Barkskins ... Her prose is often glorious, her several protagonists unforgettable ... Proulx presents these initial characters in sometimes unthinkably primitive conditions, a practice she carries into their development -- simply, and without sentiment or embellishment, telling their stories while saving most of her rich, ever-varying prose for the chief protagonist here – nature’s forests, then and now. The result is an almost perfectly choreographed pas de deux ... Proulx has pulled out all the stops here – giving us along the way every facet of man and womankind. She presents North American and world history, from the 17th century to the present, both as a cautionary tale and as an ode to our now-denuded forests.
Proulx shines brightest when focused on the details of the lives of the characters dedicated to the transformation of trees into material for human use. In her portraits of everyone from the ax swingers to the dead-water men (you'll have to read the book to learn what they do) to the surveyors to the people at the top who turn their profit-seeking attention to the monstrous kauri trees of New Zealand, her extensive research always enriches the narrative without becoming either tedious or distracting ... Barkskins is nothing if not ambitious. And Proulx is more than up to the formidable task. None of the numerous settings or centuries fails to come to life in anything less than vivid fashion. However, while the novel's enormous scale provides us with a tragic portrait of the steady and inexorable destruction of so much and so many beneath the grinding wheels of Western progress, it also prevents us from getting to know any particular character in much depth.
Though the book doesn't feel very 'propulsive,' Proulx's piss-and-shit realism and gorgeous sentences draw you deep into a world of woods...The overwhelming historical authority her language projects—the sense that she's put so much work into this book—is powerful enough to make you keep reading ... It's also worth noting that queer people, women, and indigenous people aren't written out of this history, and toward the end of the book, you get a chance to geek out on contemporary forestry theory.