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"Barkskins" Summary

By Annie Proulx

historical fiction | 717 pages | Published in 2016

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.


Estimated read time: 6 min read

One Sentence Summary

"Barkskins" follows the lives of two families over several centuries as they navigate the destruction of the world's forests and the impact it has on their lives.


"Barkskins" by Annie Proulx is a captivating and epic novel that spans over 300 years, following the descendants of two French immigrants who arrive in Canada in the late 17th century. The book delves into the harsh realities of deforestation, the impact of colonization on indigenous peoples, and the complex relationships between humans and the environment.

Brief Synopsis

The novel begins in the late 17th century in New France, a vast and untamed land that will eventually become Canada. René Sel and Charles Duquet, two indentured French woodcutters, arrive in this new world to work for a seigneur, Monsieur Trépagny. The story follows the lives of the descendants of these two men, spanning across generations and continents. As the novel progresses, it explores the devastating impact of deforestation and the relentless pursuit of wealth, alongside the resilience of the indigenous communities and the enduring power of the natural world.

Plot Overview and Setting

The novel is predominantly set in the dense and rugged forests of North America, from the sprawling wilderness of New France to the logging camps of New England and the Pacific Northwest. As the story unfolds, it also ventures into the bustling cities of Europe and the remote islands of the South Pacific. The setting serves as a character in itself, shaping the lives and destinies of the people who seek to conquer it.

New FranceVast and untamed land, dense forests, harsh and unforgiving environment
New EnglandLogging camps, burgeoning settlements, conflict between loggers and natives
Pacific NorthwestLush forests, rugged terrain, the arrival of European settlers
EuropeBustling cities, the hub of the timber trade, contrast with the New World
South PacificRemote islands, the impact of colonial expansion, new frontiers

Main Events

The novel is rich with significant events that shape the lives of the characters and the trajectory of the narrative. From the initial arrival of René Sel and Charles Duquet in New France to the subsequent generations grappling with the consequences of their actions, "Barkskins" is a tapestry of interconnected stories and pivotal moments.

ChaptersMain Events
Arrival in New FranceRené Sel and Charles Duquet arrive in New France as indentured woodcutters
Exploitation of the ForestsThe relentless deforestation and exploitation of the natural resources
Conflict with Indigenous PeoplesTensions and conflicts with the indigenous communities and their land
Expansion to New EnglandThe migration of the families to New England, furthering the timber industry
Legacy of Wealth and AmbitionThe enduring impact of wealth and ambition on the descendants of the original men

Main Characters

The novel features a diverse array of characters, each contributing to the intricate tapestry of the narrative. From the resilient and resourceful indigenous people to the ambitious and often ruthless descendants of René Sel and Charles Duquet, the characters in "Barkskins" embody the complexities of human nature and the enduring influence of the environment.

René Sel

René Sel is one of the original woodcutters who arrives in New France, and his lineage forms a significant part of the novel's narrative. He is depicted as hardworking and adaptable, facing the challenges of the wilderness with determination.

Charles Duquet

Charles Duquet, the other woodcutter, possesses a more ambitious and entrepreneurial spirit. His descendants play a prominent role throughout the novel, shaping the timber industry and the pursuit of wealth.


Mari is a Mi'kmaq woman who forms a powerful connection with the land and becomes a central figure in the narrative. Her resilience and deep understanding of the natural world provide a stark contrast to the exploitative nature of the timber industry.


Lavinia is the daughter of Charles Duquet, who inherits her father's ambitious nature. Her story reflects the insatiable pursuit of wealth and the far-reaching consequences of human actions on the environment and indigenous communities.

Themes and Insights

"Barkskins" delves into a myriad of themes and offers profound insights into the human condition and the impact of colonial expansion on the environment. The novel explores the following themes:

Environmental Degradation

The relentless deforestation and exploitation of natural resources serve as a central theme, shedding light on the devastating impact of human activities on the environment.

Indigenous Resilience

The resilience of the indigenous communities in the face of colonization and environmental degradation is a recurring theme, offering a poignant portrayal of their enduring connection to the land.

Ambition and Greed

The novel delves into the consequences of unbridled ambition and the insatiable pursuit of wealth, showcasing the far-reaching impact of human greed on the natural world.

Interconnectedness of Life

Through its expansive narrative, "Barkskins" underscores the intricate interconnectedness of all living beings, emphasizing the profound impact of human actions on the environment and future generations.

Reader's Takeaway

Readers of "Barkskins" are presented with a sweeping and thought-provoking exploration of the intertwined fates of humans and the natural world. The novel offers a stark reflection on the consequences of environmental degradation, the resilience of indigenous communities, and the enduring power of the land. It serves as a poignant reminder of the complex relationship between humanity and the environment, urging readers to contemplate the far-reaching impact of their actions.


Annie Proulx's "Barkskins" is a masterful and immersive portrayal of the human conquest of the natural world, spanning centuries and continents. Through its rich tapestry of characters and the unforgiving landscapes they inhabit, the novel offers a profound meditation on the consequences of environmental degradation and the enduring resilience of indigenous communities. "Barkskins" stands as a testament to the intricate and often tumultuous relationship between humanity and the environment, leaving a lasting impression on its readers.

Barkskins FAQ

  1. What is the genre of 'Barkskins'?

    'Barkskins' is a historical fiction novel.

  2. Who is the author of 'Barkskins'?

    Annie Proulx is the author of 'Barkskins'.

  3. What is the book 'Barkskins' about?

    The book 'Barkskins' follows the lives of two families over multiple generations and their involvement in the deforestation of North America.

  4. Is 'Barkskins' based on true events?

    While 'Barkskins' is a work of fiction, it is based on historical events and the impact of deforestation on the environment.

  5. What time period does 'Barkskins' cover?

    'Barkskins' spans over 300 years, beginning in the late 17th century and continuing into the 21st century.