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. By drilling deep into the woods that enabled this country to conquer the world, Proulx has laid out the whole history of American capitalism and its rapacious destruction of the land ... With its dozens of characters spread over hundreds of years, Barkskins could easily have collapsed into a great muddle of voices, but each of them is so distinct and so brilliantly choreographed that they never blur ... a towering new work of environmental fiction.
A multitudinous cast of characters troops through the novel, the personality and appearance of each portrayed with Dickensian exuberance ... The novel’s scope is huge and encompassing, its vision panoramic at times, at others focused minutely on all the doings and undoings of individuals: those left ravaged by the destruction of their way of life, and those engaged in the business enterprise at the heart of this book, from logging camp and river transport to sawmill on up to the boardroom. The novel is quite simply tremendous and, of Annie Proulx’s many fine works, Barkskins stands, in my view, as her masterpiece.
Proulx employs a sophisticated narrative strategy of oscillating focus. Sometimes the techno-commercial practices of a given era are foregrounded ... Annie Proulx is on the side of the angels. We need more writers like her to hammer home the message that we had better stop mistreating one another and our planet. Unfortunately, hammering is just what she does ... The whole novel suffers such two-dimensionality ... Worse yet are her stylistic infelicities. Sometimes her Native American characters speak a cigar-store pidgin to one another, only to drop it further down on the same page ... But although Barkskins comes out poorly when considered line by line, many characters linger in the mind ... Proulx is particularly effective in conveying the effect of one generation on the next.