Humanity’s written history perpetual for such a time now, fiction set in yesteryear has become an area of writing unto itself—a whole branch of novels and books overlaying stories of their own onto facts as we know them. And the success of well-written historical fiction is natural; humanity remains as interested in its past as it does its future. The real challenge for a writer of such novels is to include an agenda relevant to the contemporary world. Focusing on the history of North America’s forests, interweaving them with the tales of multiple generations of two families, with Barkskins (2016) Annie Proulx proves that historical fiction can be every bit as relevant as contemporary fiction.
Barkskins is the story of two indentured servants, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, and the generations of their families that disperse throughout the centuries that follow—blue collar to white, lumberjack to aristocrat. Sent by their king in the mid 17th century to cut timber in Nouveau France, the two men arrive together in the same dense, mosquito-infested forest, but quickly move in different directions. Sel remains on the land, indifferent to the mistreatment by his lord, and clears space for a family and livelihood. Duquet, on the other hand, escapes servitude and puts into action ideas that will fulfill his dreams of being a man of empire. Both men’s lives taking unexpected turns toward their respective goals, they live long enough to father children, children who carry on the family names in equally interesting and varied means. But always the forests remains a part of their lives, even as it dwindles around them.