I was very struck by this novel. It followed me around in my daily life and forced me to draw lines where previously I had not seen the connecting dots. It was a three pronged attack:
The language is so rich in its economy that Proulx can manage to express ten years of dense history, or summarise a topic that could demand a great many theses in its own right, in one stylish sentence. That, in the end, is why she has been able to write a novel that spans 320 years of history without it being tedious. That really is a skill, not that Proulx needs to hear that from me.
As an example, I found the following quote very moving, subtly showing as it does the great animal sacrifices that were made in the name of human greed during this period of history, as well as the massive amount of hope that was regularly placed in very uncertain goals:
… when Duquet casually mentioned China, the merchant said his cousin has been a sailor pressed into three years’ service on a Dutch voyage from Hoorn to Guangzhou, that the English called Canton. “He said it was a very long journey to a horrible place … he prayed to return home. And they despised the ship’s cargo, which was horses, the captain having heard the Chinese longed for them horribly. But in Canton the go-between merchant said China had now secured its own horses from the north. So the trip was for nothing. And on the return journey the captain was so angry he pushed all those horrible worthless horses into the sea. They could see them swimming after the ship for a long time.”
She also uses voice to move us smoothly across decades and centuries. The narrative voice changes as we travel through different eras to echo what and how her characters thought and felt. When I started to think that idea through, it made perfect sense, as clearly languages are as alive as any other facet of social history; people aren’t going to continue to speak the same way over 320 years, especially through changes in Colonial rule, from French, to English, and back and forth between the two. However, again, it takes a writer of skill to make this so seamless and in fact it took me until we reached the third generation in the novel to even notice the transition.
I found that many times, especially at the beginning of the novel, I was reading and waiting for the inevitable to happen. The inevitable always being something bad, deaths mostly, all kinds of awful, natural and unnatural deaths. Really the only “good” news was that we just kept going; kept reproducing and propagating the species, pushing forward into the unknown future.
(This reminded me of a song by The Streets called, On the Edge of a Cliff. Mike Skinner tells the story of being met by a man whilst contemplating suicide, the man says: “I lay right there once at the edge of the rock. I was ready to jump, I was ever so lost, but this gentleman stopped and said something I never forgot: For billions of years since the outset of time, every single one of your ancestors has survived, every single person on your mum and dad’s side successfully looked after and passed onto you life. What are the chances of that, like? It comes to me once in a while.” So maybe I shouldn’t depreciate the miracle of life and dismiss it so easily as a right, and not something that needs to be considered an achievement).
Being, as I am, so used to fiction, I thus expect stories to have free will. Their creators can take the plot anywhere (and often the stories themselves take flight with no permission from the writer), so it took me quite of few groans of here we go again, until I realised why the novel felt so fatalistic. This time I already knew the ending, it was fatalistic because the story has already been written: his-story. Clearly this can limit an author and although I haven’t read many historical novels, I get the feeling only a really skilled writer and storyteller could make such a story (our story) continuously interesting, as Proulx does.
It also made me think about that affirmation: “the small things are the big things” because in the end what makes these vast swathes of lives – lives that are so easily taken away and replaced – so meaningful are the moments, moments that can contain many lifetimes in a split second. Something the characters themselves have glimpses of in-between the business of survival:
As for Jan, the return to his homeland affected him deeply – the light, the long, long horizon and the opalescent subtleties of clouds – the clouds! – made him long to toss away his present life … he only wanted to gaze at clouds. In their shifting forms and vaporous mutations they seemed uncanny manifestations of what he felt inside his private self.
Also the idiosyncrasies. Of course we all like to think we are unique, but a novel like this shows us just how much of a misconception that is. We are a herd, just like the herds of animals that were disposed of in the process of settling and “civilising” the North American continent, and equally as expendable. However, the tics and the caprices, what lies beneath, all that is what really makes us interesting. Interesting, and also lovable, and in turn, being lovable makes it easier for us to keep the species going:
“I am too picky, too demanding of certain traits which I have never found in a female.”
“And what traits might those be, Mr. Breitsprecher?”
“Why, grace, handsomeness, intelligence, the ability to tell red wine from white, a fondness for robins – and, rarest of all, the ability to scale logs.”
She burst into a fit of laughter and he started as well, they stood whooping in the gloom until a shocked owl swooped soundlessly over their heads.
“Lavinia” he said, when could speak. “Shall we marry?”
I read that although this novel was widely well-received, there were some readers and critics who felt that the scope of the novel was too wide for it ever to be conquered completely and satisfactorily. From the storytelling perspective, I didn’t find that problematic and felt that the story flowed. Maybe in a sense it is more relevant that way too, as life itself presents us with very much the same issue. It is too much, too wide, too big, too many choices and too many conflicting influences for us to ever conquer it totally, and when we reach the end of life – if we are lucky enough for it not be taken away early – rarely can we look back with a similar sense of neatness.
The ending rejoins the two families through whose lens the story is told. This ending too, seemed to me a reflection of the cyclical and opaque nature of the world, as one family who fought to fell the forests, and the other who fought to live through this, come full circle to operate together in an ambitious plan for the reforestation of the continent. The novel ends with the leader of the project sleepless against this great hope, which so vast in its reach, seems hopeless also.