This 713-page epic spans multiple centuries and takes the reader on a very long journey from 1693 through to 2013. It involves two families, the old and the new world, the environment versus man’s wanton lust for more and the interconnections between our past, the current situation and the world’s future. It also forces the reader to acknowledge Europeans settlers disconnect from the environment versus the strong interconnections that the Native Americans and Maori had/have with their land. To categorise this book as an epic story is an understatement.
To read this book takes commitment, fortitude and a lot of time!! Is it worth it? Yes and no. If you are looking for well developed characters that you can recognise and come to understand then the answer in my opinion is no. If you are looking for a book that makes you sit up and take stock of where we, as human beings, are now, what we have inherited and what we will be leaving then this is the book for you.
At its simplest the book, as described by William T. Vollmann in his review in the New York Times, involves “a tale of long-term, shortsighted greed whose subject could not be more important: the destruction of the world’s forests. Resource extraction on an industrial scale mostly exemplifies the infamous tragedy of the commons: namely, that degradation to the environment is a fractional cost divided among everybody around, while the benefit to each exploiter is a whole integer that need not be shared. For example, if I clear-cut a forest, I am damaging it for all of us, myself included — but since my profit accrues to me alone, I can happily ruin the place and move on. Thus “Barkskins” (which is a term that is used for woodcutters).
The reader will also gain some insight into how America and Canada were settled, how important China was as a trading partner in the 17th Century, how Native American’s lived, how the forests in America, Canada and New Zealand were destroyed to build ships, buildings etc.
In the hands of historical novelists such as Geraldine Brooks or Diana Gabaldon I believe I would have learnt more. At times I felt I was left to fill in the blanks, which is not helpful for a non-North American reader.
That being said there is much for an Australian reader to learn and to reflect upon, especially as we are currently confronted with the paradox of 36,600 hectares in the Great Barrier Reef water catchments being approved for tree clearing by the Queensland government, which according to The Age on the 28th May 2018, is the equivalent to an area that is 50 times the size of the combined central business districts of Sydney and Melbourne, versus the federal government’s $500 million reef survival package. What!!!
A big book that has a strong message. Can we afford to not listen?