The weekâ€™s story, â€œA Resolute Man,â€ is taken from your new novel, â€œBarkskins,â€ which will be published in June. The novel opens in 1693, in the forests of New Franceâ€”the colonial territory France held in North Americaâ€”when two Frenchmen, RenÃ© Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive as indentured servants, or engagÃ©s. The novel traces the lives of these two men and their descendants. RenÃ© Sel marries a Miâ€™kmaw woman, while Duquet renames himself Duke after he sets up shop in Boston and becomes a wealthy timber entrepreneur. In this excerpt, Captain James Duke, in 1808, learns that he is an unexpected heir to the Duke & Sons timber empire. The novel also describes the fortunes of the forests and the indigenous inhabitants, the Miâ€™kmaw among them, of the land the Europeans colonized. When did you first start thinking of the novel? Did you know from the outset what form it would take?
I think I must have been inching toward a novel about the forest most of my life. As a child I was enamored of the woods and lucky enough to spend much time among trees as my mother was a self-taught naturalist. Her favorite book was Gene Stratton-Porterâ€™s â€œA Girl of the Limberlost,â€ which I re-read a few years ago. I can see how she was enchanted by the young woman who collected luna moths and other swamp rarities, but I saw the usual white-man capitalist attitude toward the natural world of North Americaâ€”what can you find, take, get, cut, dig that will make money? However, the genesis of this book began to take shape about thirty years ago. It was my habit to drive across the continent on back roads every year or so, and one time I found myself on Michiganâ€™s Upper Peninsula. I came to a place that had once been a town but had shrunk to a single grubby laundromat at a crossroads. A large sign stood in the landscape of endless bushes and scrub growth. It read something like this: â€œIn this place once stood the finest white pine forest in the world.â€ There was not a single white pine in sight. I was deeply moved, and that sign and that place have stayed with me ever since. It was the spark for the section of the book where James Duke, Lennart Vogel, and Armenius Breitsprecher discover the virgin forests of Michigan. The research and gathering of materials took years although the actual writing consumed about five years, interrupted by three very difficult moves, the first when I sold my beloved Bird Cloud, in Wyoming, disposed of many belongings and half of my library. I moved to an apartment in Seattle for six months and then to a house twenty miles away from that rambunctiousÂ city. It took a year to get over the disruption, but the new house, surrounded by red cedar, had a beautiful and large high-ceilinged writing room ideal for finishing the book.
In the excerpt, Captain Duke is captivated by Posey Brandon, a seemingly retiring â€œlady of considerable stature,â€ whom he meets aboard the ship taking him to Boston. Her initial silence proves to be deceptive. A dark humor threads through these pages, and the novel as a whole often combines the tragic and the absurd. As Captain Dukeâ€™s courtship of Posey unfolds, for example, it seems as though you must be having fun while you write. Are you?
â€œFunâ€ is not quite the sensation. Writing this book was very often an experience of intense tingling concentration very like tracking animal sign. I fell into that single-minded focus on earlier days. Hours flew while the light in this high-ceilinged writing room dimmed. The characters seemed to rush forward, to throw themselves at each other, to grasp tools and, to work and speak. Writing each of the characters was like struggling through an inundation of images, dialogue, details and memories. In the end there was too much, very much too much, and Nan Graham, my editor, dragged me to the knives. More than a hundred and fifty pages had to be cut from the novel, some with real regret, some with a cold hand. The carefully researched descriptions of Boston in its post-Colonial days were cut as not moving the story forward, and pages detailing a legal affair I still think a very important case in this countryâ€™s historyâ€”the Frost caseâ€”was trimmed to its skimpy essentials in chapter 33. Rather than tea parties, for me the role of timber rights and the cutting of mast pines, the political power struggle between distant English timber-rights grantors and New England sawmill owners, was a central facet of the American Revolution. The Massachusetts Courtâ€™s response to a particular royal order concerning some downed Maine timber was to state that such an order was a foreign judgment. In my estimation this was momentous, and I believe the American Revolution began in the forests. I had also to cut many of the details of the indignities and cruelties Miâ€™kmaw children suffered in the notorious residential schools in the twentieth century, references to Harry â€œthe Hatâ€ Daniels, the charismatic activist from Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia Miâ€™kmaw Nora Bernard, who fought for compensation to the survivors of the brutal Shubenacadie School and won, only to be murdered by her own grandson, who wanted her compensation money for drugs. Originally I had intended a long section on log poaching in Indonesia, but I ran out of time and space, and a plan I had to visit Sumatra (I like to go to places I write about, always thinking about Steinbeckâ€™s big error in â€œGrapes of Wrath,â€ where he placed his Okies in the eastern drought-free part of Oklahoma because he worked from a road map rather than actually going there.) And many pages on the kauri trees of New Zealand had to go.
Thereâ€™s a grimly comic element to events that took place in Posey Brandonâ€™s childhood. In a different scenario these could be grounds for tragedy, rather than farce. Did you always know that this childhood history would be revealed? Do you think there are readers who could be offended by the way itâ€™s presented?
The shape of Poseyâ€™s life was clear to me from the first, but her frightful old father developed from something of a footnote to a more important role. Of course there must be readers who are offended by the way Poseyâ€™s story is presented, but that never occurred to me. She could have been shown as darkly tragic, but that was not a direction I wanted to take her. Many people have had rotten childhoods and have survived and developed as strong personalities. To me, Poseyâ€™s raucous and greedy sexual desires were the way she coped with what initially must have been traumatic encounters, and to convert the brutal to seriocomic seemed to me a way of heightening the awfulness. Many of the wounded characters in the book live in a time when they must struggle onâ€”and they do. Not so different now for many.
Where does Captain Duke fit into the line of succession in the Duke family within the novel? Why did you decide to send him away to sea?
From the beginning I intended to have a strong female character as the head of Duke & Sons in the nineteenth century, but who that might be and where she would come from didnâ€™t concern me until the story neared the end of the colonial period. It was imperative to start laying the ground for this character. I looked at the children of Charles Duquetâ€™s sonsâ€”third generation Dukesâ€”who were now moving into commanding positions in the family timber company. All males. But perhaps the infant son of Sedley could be changed to a daughter? No, he/she would be too old to fit the years of power I had in mind, for it was not only necessary to fill the power position but to ensure succession. However, Sedleyâ€™s infant son, James, could grow up, and after a few maturing adventures, he could father the female character I needed. But at the writing table he was still a child, and rather than take him through school years a maritime career seemed fitting. And so Sedley Duke, after a dismissive look at the nascent American navy, arranged to enroll his son James as a midshipman on a British ship. The English were considered the finest seamen in the world and their naval traditions were the ideal. Indeed, the English and most of their ways were the cynosure of American eyes.
James was an unwanted child, despised by his father, and subject to bad luck. It might be interesting, I thought, to turn his luck around. But a bad-luck character can rarely escape his fate entirely. James would, in time, return to America, marry, and sire the character I needed. But his life wouldnâ€™t be easy and his luck wouldnâ€™t hold, as we see in this excerpt.
In the excerpt, Captain Duke is living off the riches of the timber logged by Duke & Sons, but we never see a tree felled. The novel as a whole, however, describes in great detail the way the forests of North America are cut for timber and cleared for settlements. At first, itâ€™s a gradual despoilment, but it becomes ever more rapid. How much time did you spend researching botany and forestry in order to write the book? Do you think of â€œBarkskinsâ€ as an environmental novel?
For me, the chief character in the long story was the forest, the great now-lost forest(s) of the world. The characters, as interesting as they were to develop, were there to carry the story of how we have cut and destroyed the wooden world. There was the real tragedy, and there was no way to make it seriocomic. But rather than calling it an environmental novel I think of it more in the sense of a writerly nod to human interplay with climate change, what some in the humanities and arts are beginning to think of as a cultural response to the environmental changes we have inherited in the so-called Anthropocene. I felt and feel drawn to the efforts of other artists and writers to show how we have transformed landscapes. Recently I looked again at William Henry Jacksonâ€™s sketch of Killington Peak in Vermont, done some time after he returned from the Civil War. His caption says it was â€œ. . . a favorite picnic ground for swains and their sweethearts.â€ But to me it looks rough and ruined, the ground studded with dozens of stumps that must once have been forest. It is difficult for me to see it as a pleasant picnic ground, yet to Jackson, whose acute eye for landscape is legendary, it was a place of romance. Conclusion: he lived in a time when cut-over woodland was progress, not desolation.
And yes, I did spend a great deal of time with the research for the book. Decades ago I began collecting books and materials relating to landscape, always an interest of mine, and expanded it to books on forests and forestry, a very very very rich hunting ground. Also important to me in imagining the past was examining landscape paintings and trying to visit the same ground whenever I could. Of course the Internet and Wikipedia were indispensible, including films of loggers at work, logging machinery, old restored mills and the like.
I have always had a strong sense of the past and frequently throughout the day continue to regard the landscape and my surroundings as if through the eyes of someone who might have seen it long ago. Geology, archeology, early people have always interested me from the time I was a child. Some things do not change.