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Publisher's Summary

From Annie Proulx - the Pulitzer Prize- and National Book Award-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain - comes her masterpiece, 10 years in the writing: an epic, dazzling, violent, magnificently dramatic novel about taming the wilderness, set over two centuries.

In the late 18th century, Rene Sel, an illiterate woodsman, makes his way from Northern France to New France to seek a living. Bound to a feudal lord, a seigneur, for three years in exchange for land, he suffers extraordinary hardship, always in awe of the forest he is charged with cleaning. Rene marries an Indian healer with children already, and they have more, mixing the blood of two cultures. Proulx tells the stories of the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of two lineages, the Sels and the Duquets, as well as the descendants of their allies and foes, as they travel back to Europe, to China, to New England, always in quest of a livelihood or fleeing stunningly brutal conditions - accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, the revenge of rivals.

Proulx's inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid - in their greed, their lust, their vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope - that we follow them with fierce attention. Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable American writers of our time, and Barkskins is her Moby Dick.

©2016 Annie Proulx (P)2016 Simon & Schuster

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Awe-Inspiring, Far-Reaching Epic


An Awe-Inspiring, Far-Reaching Epic of the Descendants of 2 French Settlers in 1681 in New France (in an area now in Nova Scotia) and Their Destinies Over the Next 330 Years


I was thoroughly enthralled by this sweeping epic covering nearly 330 years. Although it's 736 pages, there's no one protagonist or any character that is fully developed. In fact, I believe it's difficult, if not impossible, to write an three-century epic like this that is very compelling or moving in the usual sense of literary fiction. That is to say, this is an epic that does not go back to one original narrator's storyline but instead travels straight through 320 years from 1681 to 2012 (no backward and forward except for explanation's sake) and thus does not lend itself to the reader's personal attachment to a character or a love affair, or to a development of either in the way that has become the custom for today's readers. Perhaps the only sure way to have such an attachment is if the author develops these ingredients, adding another 500-700 pages, in which case most won't read it. In any case, Proulx's obvious intent was to tell a story that shows her necessary truth about the land, the intermixing of families, and the biblical battle always present, here greed versus good (the former winning much more over the centuries than the latter).

I certainly appreciated the change from the typical literary structures, which tend to wear me out upon much accumulation, such as when it takes 30 pages to ponder a madeleine cake.

I loved seeing how much families change over time, how they blended, nearly ended, how one member of a generation can have a dramatic impact on the next gen but each member of a generation can be pegged into one of 2 general camps favoring 1) love of money and accumulation of wealth for the familly in the rich, and, in the poor, simply survival above all else, versus 2) love of others including future generations and, for the Indians, saving of their traditional ways, the land of their ancestors and the spirit of the land that they have revered and befriended.

I was dumbstruck by the destruction of the forests, their role in our environment and future, and the complete apathy of nearly all humans toward anything to do with the environment, either ignoring the current problems on the thought that it's all a myth, it's not my problem it will be their problem, or they are incapable of conceiving that it will one day be a huge problem for Earth.

I would definitely read this novel again. I gained a better appreciation for the outdoors, wildlife, forests and trees from reading this novel, as well as a somber realization of how so many people died over the past 300 years as a result of human greed, the billions made in the pillage and the plunder of forests in the United States, Canada, as well as in New Zealand, where a good 40-page chunk of the book was set.

Proulx is a great writer. This is the first book of hers I've read. I'd definitely recommend this for a worthwhile change of scenery in your summer reading.

In fact, I've talked myself into giving this 5 stars. 4.5 stars, realizing the above-stated negatives and positives of a 736 page book covering 320 years. Did Ms. Proulx accomplish what she set out to write and did it affect me? Absolutely yes on both counts. If I gave this 4, it would be due to the inability to fully develop characters/relationships that results from the ambitious scope of the book. Why can't a writer focus on the story more than any particular character? Who says? She did an excellent job in creating this realistic world over so many deaths and births, marriages, abandonments, murders, capsizes, betrayals, hope and hopelessness.

It deserves 5 stars.


16 of 18 people found this review helpful

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  • Ilana
  • Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  • 06-19-16

The Forest for the Trees

Barkskins is a multi-generational saga, but the main character of the story is the forest—the ancient forests that covered the world and most of North America before the settlers arrived and decided they must conquer the forest as well as the native Indians who had been living in peaceful harmony with the ancient trees before the arrival of the colonizers. The story begins with two French settlers who have signed on as indentured servants to work in New France. They are the originators of two 'dynasties': the Sels, and the Dukes. The Dukes are descendent from Charles Duquet, who literally escapes from his obligations into the woods, and through years of travel and trading, and an eventual marriage to a wealthy Dutch woman, establishes a foresting company that will operate over several generations and be partly responsible for the clear-cutting and deforestation of North America and New Zealand, from the 17th through the 21st century. The Sels are descendants from René Sel, who is forced into a marriage with a native Micmac woman. He fathers mixed-heritage children, who are all faced with the problems plaguing the native Indians as the settlers methodically took away their lands and their rights, as they strive to keep their Micmac origins alive despite the overwhelming challenges and persecution they face.

By necessity, some of the characters weren't as fully developed as others, and I found the huge cast of characters quite daunting, though there is a helpful family tree provided as a pdf chart with the audiobook. I had to refer to this often, but eventually it ceased to be an issue as a handful of characters were fully developed and came to the fore, carrying the bulk of the story with them. Proulx clearly wanted to show how the white Colonialists, motivated by greed and hubris, systematically destroyed forest land which they assumed was endless and would continue to regenerate itself. Of course we now know otherwise and are suffering the consequences of events which Proulx makes clear originated from the very beginning of the discovery of the Americas by the Europeans.

I very much wanted to love this story, but found it somewhat overwhelming at times, and the environmental message, while it is one I think is important to keep in mind, seemed overbearing at times, if not always explicitly stated. The word 'Barkskins' is an invention by Proulx, who says in an NPR interview that she's not entirely sure where the word originated, admitting she might have coined it herself, and that (her novel) "was Barkskins before even the first word was written." (http://www.npr.org/2016/06/10/481449357/annie-proulx-s-bloody-new-novel-barkskins-is-about-more-than-deforestation)

The narrator handled the various accents very well, and his overall performance is definitely recommended.

25 of 30 people found this review helpful

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What an amazing story!

I was impressed with the extensive detail regarding the Native Americans and the lumber industry. The things that I learned from this book will stay with me for a very long time.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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Educational

The book is very long and detailed with so many characters to follow that you only get a brief impression of each one. The material feels a little dry at times, almost like a beautifully written history textbook. I did enjoy it and kept coming back to it for the beauty of the language and the historical perspective it gave me. So many small details of everyday life in America.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • E Azevedo
  • WALNUT CREEK, CA, United States
  • 07-03-16

A powerful book

From her book, I think I now understand what we have done to our planet, the US and other countries. We unthinkingly wiped out an important part of our heritage. And, Africa is clearing their land to raise corn for the poor people. I really loved this eco friendly book, and will recommend to all my friends. A page turner for sure, interesting characters in the book, and it went at a good pace!! Bravo

6 of 7 people found this review helpful

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A bit like perusing the obituaries

“Barkskins” is one of those sprawling epics that extends across generations and continents and families, and it fails for the reason such epics commonly do: the sheer quantity of narration required to tell the story leaves little space in which to develop personalities, conflicts, emotional tension. Characters appear and disappear in rapid succession. I read their condensed stories with the detached indifference I feel when perusing obituary notices. Yes, here was a notable person; he or she led a fascinating life – but I didn’t really know them, so it is hard to feel any human empathy.

Someone has said that this is Proulx’s “Moby Dick”. Apparently, that person was daunted by the length of both books, and read neither. Melville started with a self-contained story and used it as a point of departure for ruminations about life, nature, technology, and ultimately, the conflict between civilization and nature. Proulx is so preoccupied with getting her story told that she has no space left for rumination. She leaves us with a few not-too-subtle slogans. She is too busy telling a story to write a novel.

11 of 14 people found this review helpful

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God bless the far-sighted environmentalist


If there has been any wonder as to what Pulitzer Prize winning author Annie Proulx has been up to for the 14 yrs. since her last novel, it's now clear...researching our forests. With this latest novel, Barkskins, Proulx begins in the 17th century forests of Canada with two Frenchmen, indentured servants, awestruck by the vast forested wilderness they see upon stepping onto this North American continent: the brawny woodsman René Sel, and Charles Duquet, “a weakling from the Paris slums.” Thus begins the eradication of the towering forests and its native inhabitants, the (Mi'kmaw). At 700 pages, this door stop of a book spans three centuries that trace the descendants of the two Frenchmen, and the consequences of their chosen paths in this new world.

Through the Revolutionary War, The Civil War, the expansion of an industrialized nation, immigration, and eventually the decline of the Mi’Kmaq Indian culture, greed flows through the generations, expanding across oceans in the search for more lumber. While immigrants clear unfathomable acreage of timber to build homesteads and plant corn, the timber barons begin importing newly found wood from the forests in China and New Zealand, expanding their empires without a thought to re-forestation. The respect and the dependence the Mi’Kmaq have for the nature of the forests is an unheeded warning for the loggers. As the forests are depleted the Mi’Kmaq also fall to illness and lassitude. Only a far-sighted visionary with a love for the trees and nature realizes the need to begin researching reforestation.

The profusion of characters that inhabit these 300 years are many, but are meaningful and memorable participants in creating the eventful history laid out so colorfully by the author. The stories they contribute become the family legends; ancestoral bonds; the shoulders that future characters will stand upon. Duke's (Duquet) expensive wig purchased in Europe and proudly worn in spite of it's weight, is years later flung from the attic's stash of historical treasures by a band of exploring children mistaking it for some creature. I could picture this trip through history and time, see the relevance and the impact of inventions, from the radial saw to pre-fab homes -- Proulx details centuries of logging, and the modernization of the country on every level. It is an amazing compendium of the development of our nation.

It is almost unfair to give such an accomplishment 4*'s, (any writer that can keep me reading about logging for 26 hours really deserves 5*'s) but it moves through time with little significance given to the events apart from logging. It's like a line chart with a straight Y axis moving through incredible spikes that I'd like to have seen reflected in the story -- but then that would be more pages...more trees. Keeping your head straight ahead, eyes on the page, while the tea is tossed into the harbor, the colonists battle the British, or slavery is abolished, and so on -- it's difficult even for a tree-hugger to stay focused on hours of logging and not to do some mind-wandering. I did best devoting shorter periods of time to this; it's easy to pick up and still be in the story. Significant, interesting read. I can see Ken Burns developing this into one of his series; recommend for lovers of history, good stories, distinct characters, and strong narratives.





21 of 28 people found this review helpful

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Barkskins

A depiction of the fact that the lands (and trees) of the Indigenous Peoples of this continent were not conquered by "settlers" but by "traders." Very helpful reminder as global trade agreements are being debated.

4 of 5 people found this review helpful

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Writing (check) | Narration (check) - go for it!

I loved this book for 2 reasons:
1) Annie Proulx is a master at describing things so vividly, so susinctly that you are swept away with the imagery...and wonder how you never saw it that way before.
2) Narration by Petkoff was a.m.a.z.i.n.g! He magically captures the voices of an international cast over centuries and hands them to the listener with ease.

As a side note, I consider(ed) myself educated and progressive having grown up in the Pacific Northwest participating in conservation efforts and growing up with Reservations in my back yard. However, I appreciated Annie's ability to show me the thinking I take forgranted when it comes to natural resources. I walked away with more understanding surrounding First Nations/Native American oppression. I wish I could say that part felt good - but it really smacked me in the face and I felt convicted to learn more and do more.

10 of 14 people found this review helpful

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Man's arrogance and self-absorption

Man has a dramatic impact on the environment. It's a long-term issue that unfortunately needs a very long time to resolve. Barkskins takes its time to lay out the cruel destruction, where even the well intentioned can cause great harm. Decision by decision man is seen solely focusing on their own needs, desires, and aspiration all while failing to understand the interconnectedness of all matter that is this earth. This book brings you along man's journey to first master and then destroy all that is loved.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful