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.
Annie Proulx is the author of eight books, including the novel The Shipping News and the story collection Close Range. Her many honours 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. She lives in Seattle.