Wow. What an epic, enjoyable, and thought provoking read this was. Mum gave me this book last summer; she had bought it as she loved Annie Proulx’ other work, but had not managed to make head roads into it. In retrospect, I suspect this was because she was beginning to feel the effects of her final illness, and was looking for lighter material – this is a big, big novel, both in volume and scope. I also felt there was a slight change in style at about the point she had reached; the beginning is classic Ms Proulx, richly worded and atmospheric, plunging you into the damp darkness of the forest; the latter half speeds up the passage of time somewhat, but I suppose if what you are writing is a tale of greed and the destruction of the great forests over some three hundred plus years, you need to economise on time somewhere.
The story opens in the late 1600’s in New France, which will become Canada. Colonists are chopping down trees that the local Indians hold in deep respect; mindless of the medicinal and other values of a virgin forest, they see it only in terms of personal gain. This theme continues throughout the novel as we follow the descendants of two Frenchmen, one path taking us along Charles Duquet’s American dream with the creation of a logging empire, the other thread following the mixed race and less fortunate descendants of Rene Sel. An often grisly tale unfolds, covering deforestation and its effects, the brutal world of logging camps and the erasure of rich cultures – the river work, rafting the felled logs, is the most dangerous part, and therefore the Indians do it. Some characters appear for mere pages before meeting their ends, many of them hideous yet richly deserved; only the un-touched forests continue until the loggers reach them, vast and mysterious, and one senses this is what Ms Proulx wants to convey, that the environment is as important as any one within it, if not more so. This book took Ms Proulx five years to write, and according to her publishers she had been thinking about it for long before that. For someone who more often writes with the economy of a short story writer, this is colossal, and very moving, ending as it does with speculation into the logging of the Amazonian rain forests.
We travel the world in this book, visiting the great kauri forests of New Zealand (they get logged), the (managed logging) European forestries, the redwood forests of the American west coast (they get logged), the South American rain forests (a ‘green’ character becomes fascinated by their diversity, studies them, sends his notebooks to a family member…who looks into logging the rainforest). It’s a vibrant, timely reminder that natural resources are not infinite, that thoughtless destruction for short term profit is not and has never been viable, which living as we do in a time when climate change is accelerating beyond belief is quite terrifying. At the close of the book we are with a descendent of Rene Sel working to repair the damage, who cries, “But what if it was already too late when the first hominid rose up and stared at the world?”.
Greedy creatures, we humans. Will we ever learn? I loved this book, give it a massive thumbs up as much for its thought provocation as for its qualities as a novel. As always, let me know if you’d like to add this gem to your library!
EDIT; On it’s way to a new home with a fellow blogger, the Travelling Hippy. I met the lovely Helen some years ago in Gujarat, and recommend her blog, link to the right under blogs I follow!