The summer holds a power over my reading life that I can’t describe. Perhaps it’s the result of spending too much of my childhood competing to read the most books during my public library’s summer reading program. Or maybe I’m seduced by all of the shiny new lists that come out in droves every year, each website proclaiming its authority on all things books and assuring you that they have best recommendations for summer reading. But if I’m honest, it has nothing to do with nostalgia or my admiration of a good book list. It’s because one summer I fell in love with Annie Proulx’s Barkskins.
The moment I laid eyes on that cover—a lone tree with it’s top cut, yanked to the side, but still standing tall against a bleak hillside—I knew it was just a matter of time before I obtained a copy of my own, cracked the cover, and found out what story that tree had to tell. But this novel spreads across 717 pages, making merely lifting the book off the shelf a work out. Did I really want to commit that much time to a single novel? What about all of the other books I could read in the time it would take me to read these 717 pages? I decided to take the neutral route: request it from the library and see what happened. No commitment necessary.
When I picked Barkskins up from the library, my heart swelled with a sentimental connection I’d never felt for a book I hadn’t even read yet. The novel drew me in, and with cautious anticipation, I opened the cover and began to read.
For two weeks I carried around Barkskins—out for morning coffee, lunch with friends, grocery shopping—wherever I went, my new love had to come along. And like any good millennial, I recorded every blissful moment on social media for all the world to see how happy I was in my new relationship. Barkskins and I were meant to be.
Eventually, I turned the last page, closed the cover, and held the book to my chest. It was over. I would never read Barkskins for the first time ever again. I felt a tremendous sense of loss, a book coma I couldn’t shake. But if you had read my Goodreads review at the time, you would have never known the depth of my feelings:
Two penniless Frenchman travel to the new world and begin careers in the lumber industry that last generations. Rene Sel becomes a lumberjack and marries into a First Nations family, and Charles Duquet begins a business that becomes a giant in the lumber industry. We follow their descendants across the centuries, the Sels experiencing the everyday violence of the dangerous lumber camps and the Duquets seeking greater and greater forests to turn into gold.
Proulx’s book is a saga-—literally. This multigenerational epic continues for 700+ pages, from the late 17th century until present day. But like Donna’s Tartt’s excellent pacing in The Goldfinch, Proulx’s Barkskins doesn’t FEEL long but keeps your interest with its multiple viewpoints and beautiful prose. That said, the vast number characters boggle my brain and don’t have enough distinctive characteristics to remind me of who they are. A few characters disappear without a word, and you can’t help but wonder where they went.
Despite a few glitches here and there, I adored this massive novel. And if you love family trees, huge epics, and stories that insist that you savor them, this book will amaze and astound. I will never regret taking the time to read this unforgettable family saga.
Reading this review again now, I understand that I thought this was a good book, but I never would have guessed that I love Barkskins the way I do now. Perhaps I didn’t realize the long-lasting affect the novel would have on me over time. To this day, I still remember gasping at a plot twist, the feelings despair at a horrendous fire, and the bittersweet sense of closure in the last chapter.
While I now own a copy of my own, I can’t brush away sadness of having to return Barkskins to my library. That copy and I went through everything together, a summer romance that was doomed to end from the start.
This whole story is, of course, ridiculous. Barkskins falls far short of the best novel I’ve ever read, and I read plenty of better books that year. But for two whole weeks, no other books existed. I didn’t feel the pressure of all the novels I was supposed to be reading or think about the amount of time I was investing in this single book. It was just me and Barkskins swept up in a whirlwind adventure. And, to me, that’s what the joy of reading truly looks like—a reader and a book totally and undeniably in love.