On Annie Proulx and Barkskins

By Annie Gala, Marketing & Programs Intern

In college, I had the opportunity to study Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Stories in a class about women writing in the American West. I was amazed at her complex portrayal of masculinity and mortality in the rodeo story, “The Mud Below.” The story chronicles an aspiring rodeo man who risks death nightly for the thrill of mastering a violent bull. In a brief story, Proulx manages to portray bull-riding as an almost romantic opposition between man and animal. It was exciting for me to get to see an author I had not only read, but also discussed, analyzed, and written about at length on Thursday, June 23rd, at her reading and conversation with writer David Laskin.

After getting over my initial anxiety of being late from traffic and rain, I found my place in the audience of devoted fans clutching their copies of Barkskins. Listening to Proulx read a passage from her latest book, the words seemed to resonate with many familiar themes of her writing. An encounter between masculine characters that seeps with a rivalry but also leaves much of the tension for the reader to play out in their own mind. Harkening to the aggressive masculinity in “The Mud Below,” Proulx seems this time to paint her male characters on a quest to conquer the forest, rather than an animal.

The Question & Answer section of the evening seemed to me, however, the real opportunity to catch a glimpse into the author’s creative intentions and methods. Slow to boil, it seemed as if Proulx liked to have her audience work for an answer to the questions. If she wasn’t answering the question in short, one-word responses, she was regaling us with stories about how her great-grandmother once boiled grapefruits because she was ignorant to the proper cooking techniques.

Anecdotes such as these are the reasons that people sit through Seattle traffic to see an author that they could otherwise listen to on NPR. Who doesn’t have a humorous family story that they could turn into fiction? I myself thought about how my grandfather, who was colorblind, would always buy the ugliest-colored cars because they were cheaper, and if he couldn’t tell, then he didn’t care. The dry humor of clashing personalities and fish-out-of water experiences are what cut Proulx’s delicate prose about human struggle and her vivid portrayals of the natural world.

Though I have yet to read her newest novel, I look forward to her narrative of a multi-generational relationship between two families and the lumber industry. The premise of the story is even more compelling because she writes the disappearing forest itself as a character, flanking a complex narrative with an issue that requires the attention of everyone, especially us in the Pacific Northwest. Reading Proulx’s novel promises to be an entertaining and thoughtful way to linger with the weighty topic of deforestation and meditate on its effects for generations to come.

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