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A Novel


Now a television mini-series airing on National Geographic May 2020!
A Washington Post Best Book of the Year & a New York Times Notable Book

From the Pulitzer Prize–­­winning author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain,” comes the New York Times bestselling epic about the demise of the world’s forests: “Barkskins is grand entertainment in the tradition of Dickens and Tolstoy…the crowning achievement of Annie Proulx’s distinguished career, but also perhaps the greatest environmental novel ever written” (San Francisco Chronicle).

In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

Proulx’s inimitable genius is her creation of characters who are so vivid—in their greed, lust, vengefulness, or their simple compassion and hope—that we follow them with fierce attention. Annie Proulx is one of the most formidable and compelling American writers, and Barkskins is her greatest novel, a magnificent marriage of history and imagination.

This reading group guide for Barkskins includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


From Annie Proulx, the Pulitzer Prize– and National Book Award–winning author of The Shipping News and “Brokeback Mountain,” comes her masterwork: an epic, magnificently dramatic novel about the taking down of the world’s forests. From Canada to America, China to New Zealand, West to East, across history and the world, Barkskins takes the reader through generations of risk, love, empire building, disaster, toil, hope and progress, originating with two French adventurers who first make their way into the New World in the seventeenth century.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Why does Barkskins begin with Charles Duquet and René Sel? Discuss their similarities and differences. How do these two characters influence not only their descendants but also the three-hundred-year course of the narrative?

2. Monsieur Trépagny says, “Men must change this land in order to live in it,” and “To be a man is to clear the forest” (p. 17). Why does he believe this? What does René seem to believe about the forest and about being a man?

3. Wuqua’s garden, the Garden of Delightful Confusion, “pulled something inside Duquet as a child pulls a toy with a string” (p. 91) and stirs him “with an indefinable sensation” (p. 92). Why is Duquet, typically jaded and unimpressed, so moved by his experiences in China?

4. After Duquet wounds one of the trespassers, a boy, on his pine property, why do the boy’s cries of “Help. Me.” and the gaze of the owl in the trees (p. 137) drive Duquet into a murderous fury? Why do the attempted theft and the boy enrage him so?

5. As René’s children Zoë, Noë, Achille, Theotiste and Elphège make their way to Mi’kma’ki, the “journey was rough underfoot and circuitous in their minds” (p. 168). Each hopes for different things and changes in different ways. How is each child affected? Why is Mi’kmaw country so powerful for them?

6. When Achille encounters a whale while fishing with his friends, the whale says to him, in Sosep’s voice, “You are not” (p. 185). After losing his family to the English, Achille claims, “I hunt no more. My life here is finished. I am not” (p. 195). Why does this phrase stay with Achille? What does it mean?

7. When Kuntaw meets Beatrix and she says, “I need you, Indian man. Follow,” he feels that he stumbles “out of the knotted forest and onto a shining path” (p. 203). Yet when Beatrix’s health fails, “when she most needed him . . . he veered away from her” (p. 287). Why do they pull away from each other in the end, Beatrix falling in love with the doctor and Kuntaw fixating on the “One Who Would Come”?

8. Beatrix explains to Dr. Mukhtar that she can express affection only by teaching and offering books (p. 294). Where else is this connection between education and affection present in Barkskins? What other characters show their love this way?

9. The day after their wedding, Posey and James Duke discover they may be ill-suited, and James insists, “ ‘We must talk all of this out.’ He believed in reason, though it was unreasonable to do so” (p. 372). How does this counterbalance of reason and unreason characterize their relationship?

10. Why, after all the tragedies Jinot endures, is it the women’s rejection of him in the kumara field that makes “the old, smiling, merry Jinot” evaporate, replaced by an “aging man who had known sorrow and difficulty and now, painful rejection” (p. 428)? Why these women and in this place?

11. Posey tells Lavinia that “if you know from experience what others must do to earn a living you will be a better person with a deeper knowledge of others. I have no use for the weak and helpless woman. You may need independence in your life, for women are too often taken advantage of—no one knows this better than I” (p. 491). Later, Lavinia is inspired by Angélique and her hammer and the image of an “army of young women advancing into the forests” (p. 507). How do these influences shape Lavinia and her actions throughout the rest of her life?

12. When Aaron Sel learns of his father Junot’s death in New Zealand, where Aaron refused to go, he feels “an interior ripping as though something was pulling at his lungs” and says, “I was a bad and stupid person before, maybe I still am that person but I think I am different.” Peter Sel replies that “A man can get better” (p. 599). How does Aaron make himself better? What does he mean when he says, “I drink the shadow now. I find it good” (p. 601).

13. Throughout Barkskins we see the healing powers of the trees and the forests, from the Mi’kmaq and their medicines to Conrad Duke finding peace in trees after World War II (p. 664) to Afghanistan vet Tom who sees his fallen brothers in larches (p. 710). In what other ways do the forests heal people?

14. How does “runaway Egga, the direct descendant of Charles Duquet and René Sel” (p. 622) reflect his forbears? How is he different from them?

15. “In every life there are events that reshape one’s sense of existence. Afterward, all is different and the past is dimmed.” (p. 49) Discuss moments like this for characters throughout the novel. What are your favorite moments? Which made you laugh? Which were unexpected?

16. Is it fitting that the novel closes with Sapatisia Sel and her forest restoration group? Where is Onehube driving? Why does Sapatisia groan, “Oh God, oh God! Put out the moon!” (p. 713)?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Watch a documentary such as Forbidden Forest, If a Tree Falls, The Burning Season or The Magical Forest to learn more about forest conservation, forestry practices and the lengths some go to in order to protect the ecosystem around the world.

2. Is there a forest near you? What is its history? How old is it? What changes has it undergone? Are there any conservation efforts underway? Do some research with your group to better understand the natural history in your local community.
Gus Powell

Annie Proulx is the author of eight books, including the novel The Shipping News and the story collection Close Range. Her many honors include a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, the Irish Times International Fiction Prize, and a PEN/Faulkner award. Her story “Brokeback Mountain,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, was made into an Academy Award-winning film. Her most recent novel is Barkskins. She lives in Seattle.

“Annie Proulx’s Barkskins is remarkable not just for its length, but for its scope and ambition. It’s a monumental achievement, one that will perhaps be remembered as her finest work. . . It’s exhilarating to read Proulx, a master storyteller; she is as adept at placing us in the dripping, cold Mi’kma’ki forests as in the stuffy Duke & Sons parlors. Despite the length, nothing seems extraneous, and not once does the reader sense the story slipping from Proulx’s grasp, resulting in the kind of immersive reading experience that only comes along every few years.”

– Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Part ecological fable à la Ursula K. Le Guin, part foundational saga along the lines of Brian Moore's Black Robe and, yes, James Michener's Centennial, Proulx's story builds in depth and complication without becoming unduly tangled and is always told with the most beautiful language. Another tremendous book from Proulx, sure to find and enthrall many readers.”

– Kirkus Reviews (Starred Review)

“Proulx’s signature passion and concern for nature as well as her unnerving forensic fascination with all the harm that can befall the human body charge this rigorously researched, intrepidly imagined, complexly plotted, and vigorously written multigenerational epic. [With an] extensive and compelling cast, Proulx’s commanding epic about the annihilation of our forests is nothing less than a sylvan Moby-Dick replete with ardently exacting details about tree cutting from Canada and Maine to Michigan, California, and New Zealand, with dramatic cross-cultural relationships and with the peculiar madness catalyzed by nature’s glory. Here, too, are episodes of profound suffering and loss, ambition and conviction, courage and love. With a forthcoming National Geographic Channel series expanding its reach, Proulx’s commanding, perspective-altering epic will be momentous.”

– Booklist, Starred Review

“[It’s] a tale too beautiful to miss, excellent for long afternoons spent swaying in a hammock.”

– Good Housekeeping

“Magnificent... Barkskins flies... One of the chief pleasures of Proulx’s prose is that it conveys you to so many vanished wildwoods, where you get to stand ‘tiny and amazed in the kingdom of pines.’ This is also the great sadness of Barkskins. The propulsive tension here is generated not by wondering what will happen to each character, but by knowing that the forests will be leveled one after another... If Barkskins doesn’t bear exquisite witness to our species’s insatiable appetite for consumption, nothing can.”

– Anthony Doerr, Outside Magazine

"A masterpiece."

– Buzzfeed

“Annie Proulx – the magnificent American writer who brought us ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and ‘The Shipping News’ – scores once again with the captivating ‘Barkskins.’ . . . Her prose is often glorious, her several protagonists unforgettable. Proulx taps a vein here, helping to make ‘Barkskins” one of the most exciting books I have read in years. Proulx has pulled out all the stops."

– Karen Brady, Buffalo News

Barkskins is an awesome monument of a book, a spectacular survey of America’s forests dramatized by a cast of well-hewn characters.Such is the magnetism of Proulx’s narrative that there’s no resisting her thundering cascade of stories. A vast woods you’ll want to get lost in. . . Barkskins is a towering new work of environmental fiction.”

– Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“Annie Proulx weaves [a] wealth of research, [and] brilliant imagination in [her] new novel Barkskins. Annie Proulx is a fearless writer. Like Melville's whaling and McMurtry's ranching, [Barkskins] provides a cast of colorful characters — and a means of examining their relationships to the natural world and the continent's indigenous people. [With] delicious prose . . . Barkskins has a large cast, but that's a showcase for Proulx's gift for creating lively, complex characters. Proulx's style is inimitably her own, but it echoes here with those of great influences: Dickens, Melville, Twain, Faulkner and more.”

– Tampa Bay Times

“Annie Proulx returns with a great long read for the summer . . . Worth the wait, [Barkskins is] a stunning, bracing, full-tilt ride through 300 years of U.S. and Canadian history, told through two families whose fortunes are shaped, for better and worse, by the Europeans' discovery of North America's vast forests. With Barkskins, Annie Proulx blows out the horizons. The novel has a satisfying global sweep, with the type of full-immersion plot that keeps you curled in your chair, reluctant to stop reading. Barkskins is a tour de force.”

– Elle

“Fans of Annie Proulx have waited 14 years for a new novel from her. This summer, she has rewarded them. Her eye for detail offers readers glimpses into a world that is almost unimaginable. Proulx's novel will leave readers with new perspectives on a familiar history. It will also, perhaps, make some readers pause, this summer, during a summer stroll perhaps, and consider the manmade environment — the roads, the sidewalks, the homes, the cellphone towers, the flowerbeds — amid the tall, long-lived trees.”

– Chicago Tribune

“Stunning, monumental... a moving opus of evolving Western environmental values in novel form.”

– Jim Carmin, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Monumental. [With] prose of directness, clarity, rhythmic power and oaken solidity. . . Barkskins is a potently imagined chronicle of mankind’s dealings with the North American forests."

– Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

“Barkskins is masterful, full of an urgent, tense lyricism, its plotting beautifully unexpected, its biographical narratives flowing into one another like the seasons. Ambitious. . . A marvel. . .[Barkskins] is a long novel worth your time.”

– Charles Finch, USA Today

“Towering. . . With gorgeous imagery, clean prose and remarkable sensitivity, [Barkskins is] as powerful and important as any literary work produced on this continent in the three centuries spanned by the story. “Barkskins” is “The Giving Tree” for grown-ups.”

– Sandra Levis, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Dazzling. . . Proulx’s characters are vivid, insistent, captivating. . . nary a page goes by without a few exquisitely observed historical details. The temptation to consider Barkskins under the rubric of a Great American Novel is difficult to resist, given its scope. But Proulx’s ambitions seem to be keyed differently. Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Morrison’s Beloved—all of these books might be doomed in their respective attempts to somehow encompass the United States in its full complexity, but they at least focus on that burgeoning and manifold nation. Proulx, in contrast, establishes in Barkskins a narrative so grand in spatial and temporal scope, so broad in theme, that it cannot conceivably be strictly American. Her pitch-perfect sentences, instead, encompass the entire Western world, and its ever-growing concern with ecological and environmental change.”

– Jeffrey Zuckerman, The New Republic

Extraordinary. . . Barkskins is the masterpiece Proulx was meant to write.”

– John Freeman, Boston Globe

“Enthralling. . . Proulx’s human characters are vividly conceived. Barkskins brims with a granular sense of human experience over a period of 300 years. And like many novels by excellent writers, Barkskins encourages understanding, if not empathy, for characters whose outlooks we might usually dismiss. One of the great achievements of this novel is to create a tragic personality for the environment. Proulx’s beautiful prose renders and exultant view of the life of forest worlds lost to us.” 

– Bookpage

“Like the best realists, Proulx can make us see the world and its inhabitants with greater clarity. Juggling so many different plotlines and characters becomes easier when you have, as Proulx does, a Dickensian gift for quick portraiture... Proulx reminds us that the world we live in was made possible by the destruction of the world that preceded it. The novel concludes with Saptisia Sel, the head of the Breitsprecher Tree Project, asking, ‘Can’t we try again? Can’t we fix what we broke?’ It’s an urgent question, perhaps the urgent question, one that we should all be asking ourselves now.”

– Anthony Domestico, Boston Globe

‘Barkskins’ is Annie Proulx’s greatest novel yet. [Her] talent for bringing individuals alive with a single perfectly-turned line has never been sharper than in these pages. … It's a completely masterful performance, the greatest thing this great novelist has ever written.”

– Christian Science Monitor

“Annie Proulx’s new work is a tribute to the world’s boreal forests, an intricately detailed narrative of geography, history and humanity that is both exhilarating and mesmerizing... [T]his is not a novel to peck at or flick through, but one to read slowly and to savour as a long and fulfilling feast.”

– The Economist

“Few authors are as uniquely qualified as Annie Proulx (The Shipping News) to sustain a novel as long as Barkskins. Pages melt away as readers zoom through the decades. Proulx’s story is bigger than any one man, one death, or even one culture: It’s about the effect civilization and society have had on the land. In her magical way, Proulx leaves the reader with an impression of not only a collection of people, but our people and the country that shaped us as we shaped it. This is Proulx at the height of her powers as an irreplaceable American voice.”

– Entertainment Weekly (Grade A)

“Annie Proulx’s 10th book is ambitious and essential. Barkskins is grand entertainment in the tradition of Dickens and Tolstoy. Barkskins is awesome and urgent. And if we’re lucky enough to survive the Anthropocene we’ve seemingly wrought, then Barkskins will surely survive as the crowning achievement of Proulx’s distinguished career, but also as perhaps the greatest environmental novel ever written.”

– Peter Geye, San Francisco Chronicle

"Barkskins leaves no board unturned as it covers the industry that brought us plywood, cheap paper and prefab housing. [With] Proulx’s stunning stylistic gifts . . . She is a writer’s writer, and one whose deep interest in history provides the long view of how our environmental recklessness has brought us to a point of reckoning."

– Helen Embry Heltzel, Seattle Times

“Proulx sketches each person with vigorous, unforgettable strokes . . . read it, absorb its urgent message.”

– Annalisa Quinn, NPR

“An epic capstone to 80-year-old Proulx’s impressive career, Barkskins surpasses even the extraordinary The Shipping News as her finest novel."

– Cliff Froehlich, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Annie Proulx’s stunning new Barkskins is a bracing, full-tilt ride through 300 years of U.S. and Canadian history. With Barkskins, she blows out the horizons. The novel has a satisfying global sweep, with the type of full-immersion plot that keeps you curled in your chair, reluctant to stop reading. Barkskins is a tour de force [and] was worth the wait.”

– Elle

“Epic . . . Violent, monumental and often breathtaking, Barkskins is a colossal achievement.”

– Columbus Dispatch

"A masterpiece, Barkskins encompasses a breadth of themes and history rarely approached by any writer, girded by peerless research and Proulx's X-ray vision into the human heart. But the triumph of the novel lies in sentences that burst from the page, ideas that move and breathe with mission.”

– Hamilton Cain, O The Oprah Magazine

“The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Brokeback Mountain and The Shipping News delivers an epic novel that begins with two impoverished Frenchmen, full of hope, who migrate to Canada in the 18th century and become indentured woodcutters, or 'barkskins.' The following 300-year history of two families spans cultures and continents, and probes North Americans’ predatory history with our now-vanishing natural world.”

– Ms. Magazine

More books from this author: Annie Proulx