Annie Proulx is not nostalgic

Barksins is a multi-generational two-family saga spanning 300 years, the time it takes to chart the desiccation of North America’s forests. Time irretrievable, family unknowable, legacies distorted, the pile-up of meaning as events are repeated (with variation) across families and down generations, the intricate ecosystems of forests replaced by sanitary tree-planting. This is prime material for nostalgia.

But Annie Proulx feeds us only two or three small nibbles of it. Here is perhaps its strongest case, coming late on page 622.

Runaway Egga, the direct descendant of Charles Duquet and René Sel, half-starved and ragged, walked by night and slept by day.

It’s a small gut-punch that forefronts for a moment how close these two family lines are, despite the great gulf between them. Residential schools, from which Egga is running, is a death-threat not only to Egga himself, but to the living legacy of intertwined histories. It is to the book’s credit that nostalgia does not take over. This passage, and the book as a whole, does not become a dirge. We want Egga to live in part because there is so much history behind him, but Egga is not valued because he is evidence of that past. Egga is born of the past, faces the present, and takes us into the future, as all the characters do.

I am a sucker for nostalgia, but it is right that Barkskins not be it. Nostalgia would be romantic, the entirely wrong way to grapple with the real history that makes up this fiction.

Some favorite lines

Duquet edged closer to the group until he was nearly among them, grasping at half-understood words in the Babel of discourse. (p 77)

As Margit looked him over Duquet saw that her right eye was more kindly than the left, which shot out a ray of antipathy. (p 109)

The governor was a haughty snob… He gave off an air of having hung in a silk bag in the adjoining room until it was time for him to emerge and perform the duties of his position. (p 149)

“Boston seems to me always in a lunatic mood…” (p 264)

They pushed back the wildwood. Civilization rushed into the trees. (317)

After so many years in the dark forests at the top of the world, where trees rejected the puny efforts of men, he found pollarded willows ridiculous.
(p 241)

They came out of the trees as the storm pulled away, and from a lookout rock they saw pillars of mist exhaled from the folded hills. (p 448)

…Miss Heinrich, older than the redwoods… (p 642)

“Can you figure out for yourselves that the old medicine plants grew in a different world?” (p 696)

New vocabulary

Sphagnum (p 6): a plant of a genus that comprises the peat mosses

Moil (p 166): hard work, drudgery

Pollarded (p 241): cut off the top and branches of (a tree) to encourage new growth at the top


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