September 26th, 2016
The Short Take:
This epic novel, built around the logging industry in North America, traces how these vast, virgin forests shaped the lives of the descendants of two French immigrants and a Mi’kmaw family. It’s informative, heart wrenching, and a cautionary tale for today. Best of all, it’s crafted by one superbly gifted writer.
I admit a fondness for books that trace generations of families. This one has a much stronger and more important message than most of them. It illustrates how the greed and wastefulness of the very few can cause suffering — sometimes quite intense — for all.
Our flawed relationship with nature is a recurring theme for Proulx. She showcased that perfectly in this novel by following the descendants of two French immigrants, both of whom are amazed by the endless forests on this continent. However, that awe leads them down two completely different paths.
The endless destruction of forests, rivers, and the way of life (not to mention their actual lives) of North America’s First Nations beats a steady drum throughout the book. It can wear you down, but maybe we need to have our eyes opened to what once was and how little of that we have left.
However, my only real complaint was about the last 100 or so pages. Up to that point Proulx gave her characters time to breathe and her readers time to engage in the story. For some reason in those last pages she elected to speed through generations at a breakneck pace. It’s hard to care much about a character who is barely mentioned before the plot moves on.
In other words, I wanted a much longer book.
A Little Plot:
Rene Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in what is now Canada. They are both barkskins — tree cutters — and must labor for another for three years in exchange for their own land. Duquet runs away and embarks on a life of greed and double-dealing, eventually clear-cutting whole forests. Sel marries a Mi’kmaw woman. He continues to cut trees, but only to sustain his own family.
Their descendants follow in the paths set by these men — one side logging; the other side trying to balance Mi’kmaw ways while cutting trees for the white property owners.
Proulx is a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, among other honors. You can find out a lot about her online, but not at a dedicated website.