“In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” 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 Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. 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, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.”
And that’s just the back cover! I picked out this 700 page tome to carry with me around Melbourne last year and while I ended up with a slipped disk, I loved sinking deep into the worlds spun together through this generational epic. The forests are the real protagonist of this story and the exploration of the human relationship with nature is, for me, what made this such a compelling read. What this novel lacks in clean-cut, conclusive narrative, it makes up for in atmosphere, landscape and character. It is a vastly ambitious feat where Proulx, not unlike Seuss’ Lorax, “speaks for the trees” making it a profound story for our time. Stunning.