In 1693 René Sel and Charles Duquet, both penniless Frenchmen arrive in New France. They are to work for a feudal lord, for three years in exchange for land and are set to work cutting into the immense forest that surrounds them. A forest that seems endlessly self-renewing. Duquet runs away almost at once whilst René stays and suffers extraordinary hardship. Eventually he is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman, she bears him children destined to be caught two cultures. Charles starts out in business, first as a fur trapper then setting his sights on extracting the lucrative timber all around him in order to marry well, become a gentleman and transcend his humble beginnings.
Proulx tells the stories of their descendants until 2013. She explores Europe, China, and New Zealand with the Duquets (anglicised to Duke) as they hunt for new markets for their timber and new trees and forests to exploit as the once presumed infinite resource disappears at a disarming rate.
She also explores the lands and lives of the Mi’kmaw and other tribes as the whiteman brutalises their lands and bullies them into a compliance that ends in cultural annihilation.
This is an ambitious and important work from an exceptionally talented writer. Proulx can depict a character with a few simple strokes of her pen and summon up a forest or a wilderness to surround her readers with just a few sentences and she has put those talents to use to create what I fear will become a tombstone for our murdered forests.
There is only one thing wrong with this book, if you’ve read my reviews before you’ll probably have seen me harping on about books that need more editing on a number of occasions- this time the problem is the opposite. This book should have been longer. There are a LOT of characters but we often don’t get to spend enough time with them. As the book progresses it seems that we spend less and less time with them. In one way this is good as it does give the feeling that we are hurtling towards a terrifying tree-less future, but it did also mean that I cared less about the modern characters fighting this problem than I had about their ancestors that had created it.
Still, when you have a book as long as this and you want more of it rather than less that is a huge accolade to its author.
NB I received a free copy of this book through NetGalley in return for an honest review. The BookEaters always write honest reviews