Being a series of short reviews of the Bailey’s Prize longlisted titles I hadn’t read before the announcement. These are mostly hack-jobs, consisting of extrapolations of my reading notes. Luckily I tend to make notes in full sentences. Spoilers ahead.
Barkskins, by Annie Proulx
Before we start, let’s be clear about one thing: Barkskins is extravagantly, almost defiantly, flawed. For one thing, it is far too long. Nobody needs 717 pages all at once; I know it is traditional to make exceptions for War and Peace and Clarissa but I am honestly not sure that even they make the most of their unwieldy page count. Barkskins certainly doesn’t need it; it would always have been a big book, mind you, but it could easily have been 200 pages shorter. For another, that length is compounded by Proulx’s tendency to sacrifice depth to breadth, most notably in terms of her characterisation. Characters are introduced, get married, go to seek their fortune, and die choking on river water or crushed by a falling log, all within the space of five pages—not just once, but repeatedly. As the book edges closer to contemporaneity, we’re allowed to focus more on individuals (I think this may also have something to do with the upward trajectory of the average lifespan), but there’s still a lot to keep track of, not least how all of these people relate to one another. (There are two family trees provided, but, for reasons surpassing understanding, they are in the back, so unless you flick through the whole volume first, you won’t know they’re there until it’s far too late.) It is the sort of book that could not have been published without the author being a big enough name to guarantee that it’d be worth it.
And yet, unlike most such books, Barkskins is actually pretty good. Once it settles down and starts focusing for longer stretches on individual characters, we find people who are worth caring about. There is the sexually aggressive Posey, who engineers not only the death of one husband who’s no good to her, but goes on to seduce and marry James Duke, heir to the Duke logging fortune. There is her daughter Lavinia, who from the 1880s onwards runs the business more competently and ruthlessly than any of the men on its board. There is part-Mi’kmaq Jinot Sel, who travels to New Zealand with his employer and patron and is horrified by the naive paternalism shown by whitemen towards the native Maori. (This eventually gets Jinot’s employer killed, which isn’t good news for Jinot either.) Everywhere, for over three hundred years, we are met with two things: the visceral ways in which men (and women) react to forests, and the complacent conviction of whites that they know best, wherever they are, whichever indigenous nation they’re encountering.
Barkskins is a lot like another book on the Baileys Prize longlist, The Sport of Kings, in that it refracts the history of an entire industry in North America through the focusing lens of a family (or two). Barkskins takes a much longer view—it starts in the 1690s and goes all the way up to 2013, where The Sport of Kings only starts in the nineteenth century—but Proulx’s and Morgan’s projects are almost identical. They ask us to see the ways in which racial prejudice is a definitive part of the American identity, and in particular of the business culture that America developed. Where Morgan focuses on the endemic racism of the South created by plantation slavery, Proulx looks much further back: the experience of black Americans is entirely absent from Barkskins, but only because she focuses on the displacement and total destruction of Native American ways of life. Though much of this is achieved through despoiling the natural habitat (I lost count of the number of times characters proclaimed that the forest needed no conservation, because it was infinite—literally too big to fall), a lot of it is also achieved through racial mixing. This starts in generation one, when Charles Duquet and René Sel both have children with Mi’kmaq women in New France (now Canada), and the effects of it continue to be felt for centuries: young men in later generations return to a dying Mi’kmaw village (yes, it’s spelled both ways) headed up by the long-lived patriarch Kuntaw. They’re mixed-race, poor, and looking for a place they can belong, but the old ways are disappearing fast, and there simply aren’t enough Mi’kmaq being born to replace the ones who are dying. It is also interesting to note that the Sels, who never attempt to hide or erase the Native parts of their heritage, develop into a dynasty of lumberjacks: they are professionals and have deep knowledge, but they are the workers. The Duquets, meanwhile—a line which at one point early on seems as though it might run out of boys, prompting Charles Duquet to adopt three from European orphanages—become the Dukes, owners of the greatest logging empire in North America. Their success exists alongside their utter rejection of any whiff of Mi’kmaq in their family’s past. (Proulx also dwells gleefully on the deep irony of a company that prides itself on family ownership and heredity being founded on adoption, a non-blood relationship.)
Proulx isn’t just interested in race fatalism, though; she uses race to comment on environmental choices. Whitemen are baffled by the Native American tendency not to develop and cultivate land, not to “improve” it; most white people genuinely see this as a sign that natives are unfit to live in the country. The Mi’kmaq, meanwhile, as well as representatives of other tribes and nations that we see, cannot understand what whitemen think they are doing: their “improvement” involves slash-and-burn cutting, huge amounts of wasted timber, erosion of topsoil leading to flash floods and landslides, and the total eradication of wildlife, which doesn’t seem much like improvement from an indigenous—or, indeed, sensible contemporary—point of view. Proulx mostly avoids the “magical Indian” stereotypes of inscrutable redmen in touch with the spirit of the forest, but she makes it quite clear that centuries of rapine and our current ecological disaster situation is due to the greed of white people. There’s a grain of hope: near the end of the book, a Duke son begins to take an interest in replanting, and develops a seedling nursery which later becomes a fully-fledged foundation that (in a nice touch) gives a grant to two young Sel descendants to study forestry and participate in a replanting project. And that grain of hope is appropriately complicated by the book’s final page; we want to believe that human ingenuity and determination can fix this problem, but we can’t fix everything.
So, final verdict time. There are awkward parts to Barkskins; quite apart from the length and the often-perfunctory investment in characters, we’re often treated to infodumps in the form of conversation which sounds stilted and silly even for a historical recreation. But overall? It’s surprisingly readable; when we do get the space to care about characters, they’re rounded and vivid; and Proulx’s staggering ambition is in large part repaid by the realism with which she corrals her themes and her loose ends. To be honest, I wouldn’t complain if it ended up on the shortlist. It’s trying to do something immense, and I think that’s worth celebrating.
The Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction shortlist is announced on 3 April. For more commentary, see the rest of the Shadow Panel: Naomi, Antonia, Meera and Eric. Barkskins is published by 4th Estate, and is available in hardback.