Trees bring writer south

By Dionne Christian

Annie Proulx's new epic story stretches far and wide and south, writes Dionne Christian.
Annie Proulx says she was and is primarily a reader.
Annie Proulx says she was and is primarily a reader.

If Annie Proulx had her way, New Zealand would have featured in more detail in her latest novel, Barkskins.

But even Pulitzer Prize-winning authors must follow editors' edicts, so Proulx took out about 150 pages from her original manuscript. Much of that was about the logging of our kauri forests; descriptions of the overall ecosystem including detail about flax. Also jettisoned, a section about log-poachers in Sumatra for the final portion of the book.

"If I had not been reined-in, book-buyers would probably have needed a wheelbarrow to carry a copy of Barkskins home," Proulx acknowledges.

As it is, Barkskins runs to 714 pages; 717 if you include the acknowledgements where Proulx thanks Wellington novelist Jenny and her musician husband Laughton Pattrick -- among others -- for helping her during her time in New Zealand.

But we're still there. Her descriptions of New Zealand's native forests ring with an awestruck air; the hard-scrabble life in a kauri logging camp in a country on the edge of the world is depicted with a large measure of guts and little glory.

Barkskins is an epic story, starting in the late 1700s when two illiterate woodsmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, leave northern France for New France in North America to seek their respective fortunes. One plays by the rules; the other prefers to chart his own course and no prizes for guessing who comes out on top.

The fates of their respective descendants are intertwined as the years pass. These men and women travel far and wide, even to New Zealand. Many die horrible deaths -- indeed one of the most unexpected and sad occurs in our part of the world -- and no one, even those who achieve wealth and apparent success, lives happily ever after.

"I am not one to look back at the books I have written nor to regard my 'work' -- really, it is play -- in totality as having a particular shape, but Barkskins did indicate to me that there is a pattern to the themes I choose for exploration," says Proulx, 81. "I am attracted to social unfairness, to striving and opposing groups of people, to stressful situations, to underdogs and those discriminated against by a larger mass of people.

"In my earlier books I looked at rural poverty in New England (Postcards), Newfoundland (The Shipping News), the American west (the three volumes of Wyoming stories). In Accordion Crimes, I was concerned with the plight of immigrants in the United States. Brokeback Mountain was about rural homophobia. Over-riding everything else, all of my books have been about landscape and place."

Much has been made about Barkskins' length -- after all, it's a book that hammers home what the wholesale destruction of swathes of forests has wrought -- and there have been niggles that it's overly earnest and characterisations are inconsistent.

That's partly true but it's also richly detailed, provocative and, for the most part, a gripping story. You care about the characters; perhaps one lot of descendants more than the other depending on your point of view. Proulx isn't simply writing about the environment. She recognises that the fates of people(s) and the natural world are bound more closely than we like to imagine.

"Barkskins is about deforestation, which is linked to climate change," she says. "It also represents indigenous people and shows the replacement of peoples with an animistic understanding of the forest with people who see it as resource for individual gain and, as you say, 'success, wealth and power.'

"Working out this point as a readable story was very important to me. Why else spend years writing it?"

Proulx had all the qualifications to become an historian but after completing her studies at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, says she simply chose to live a New England life with children, home, books, a garden and her writing. The latter has allowed her -- and a legion of readers -- to contemplate US history from different points of view.

As she points out, life looks very different when you're an underdog or in a group discriminated against by the so-called mainstream.

"I never wanted to be part of academic life; indeed, I shrank from the very idea," she says. "I didn't think of myself as a writer for a long time after I started writing; I was, and am, primarily a reader and I learned to write through omnivorous and constant reading of everything -- mostly history.

"Do I think I could have made a contribution to historical scholarship? Perhaps, but because my mind tends to roam through large spaces and times, it would have been difficult to summon the intense and narrower dedication to a particular historical problem. Or so I think."

Like many of Proulx's 13 books -- if you count four non-fiction, four collections and short stories and five novels -- Barkskins started with an observation made while travelling around the US. While on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, she happened across a town, all but abandoned, and a sign that proclaimed something along the lines of the locale having once been the finest white pine forest in the world. She noted there wasn't a single pine standing.

Researching and writing the book took years and involved extensive travels around the US, where most of the action takes place, as well as to Nova Scotia and New Zealand. She says there were many discoveries along the way.

"I was surprised and interested to discover that many ancient Chinese pines were cut down and burned to make the soot that was the basis of the poets' and scholars' ink blocks. Deforestation for the production of poetry! Who knew?"

by Annie Proulx
Paperback, $37; hardback, $50

- Weekend magazine

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