Annie Proulx: “Rough Deeds” from TNY 6/10-17/13

TNY art by Timothy Goodman & Grant Cornett

TNY art by Timothy Goodman & Grant Cornett

In New France, which people more and more called Canada, for the old Iroquois word kanata, Duquet was everywhere – examining, prying, measuring, observing, and calculating. Limbs and low-quality hardwood waste beame high-quality firewood, and every autumn he packed twenty wagons full for the Kebec market and for Paris…

I started out not enjoying this story at all, but the more I looked for reasons to say I didn’t like it, the more things I discovered that I did like. Works that way sometimes. In fact, it’s why I blog these stories: it forces me to move beyond “I didn’t like it,” often to the point where I change my mind.

I didn’t even realize it was a novel excerpt until I read the Page-Turner interview, so I must admit respect for that. The novel’s about the “fortunes and descendants of two young men from France, who come to New France in the late seventeenth century” according to Proulx; Duquet is one of them. Since he, shall we say, exits the stage at the end of this excerpt, presumably his descendents take up the storyline. I checked the story carefully to be sure: the only mention of any family or offspring is in the name of the company he starts, initially Duquet et Fils, later, Duke & Sons. Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. He doesn’t seem like a family man.

Duquet starts out trading lumber from Quebec, then at the urging of an English business associate, moves to the colony of Maine and buys up some land. His business expands, and he does quite well for himself: “It was like walking on a web of tightropes, but the money flew around Duquet like dandelion fluff in the wind. He had only to catch it in his net and share it with Dred-Peacock.” Nothing enrages him more than someone poaching trees off his land, however, and in the end, that combination of rage and ambition is his undoing.

He’s not very fond of his English associate, but he assumes the feeling is mutual:

He knew that Dred-Peacock saw him as an ill-bred boor, a ceature from the depths. True enough, he had escaped a cramped childhood spent pulling rabbit fur from the half-rotten skins… Finally, in this clinging miasma of stinking hair and dust, his mother, choking blood, had lain on the floor, as his father’s black legs scissored away into the night, and Duquet began his struggle to get away from France, to become another person.

Even a childhood left behind has a way of staying with us, and his comes to the fore on a visit to a new parcel of timberland in Maine. He finds others there, cutting down trees, poaching his lumber. Two of the men run away, but Duquet captures the third with a skillful throw of his tomahawk to the leg of a teenager already slowed down with a badly infected wound. To find out the extent of the poaching operation, he chops off the kid’s fingers one by one until he gets the information he needs. Not that it matters; the infection is going to kill the boy by morning. But Duquet’s vengeful nature, his rage and ambition, and the echoes of his painful childhood, speed up the process:

The boy spoke. “Help. Me,” he said in English. “Help. Me.”
inside Duquet, something like a tightly closed pinecone, licked by fire, opened abruptly, and he exploded with insensate and uncontrollable fury, a lifetime’s pent-up rage. “J’en ai rien à foutre. No one helped me!” he shrieked. “I did everything myself! I endured! I contended with powerful men. I suffered in the wilderness. I accepted the risk that I might die! No one helped me!” The boy’s gaze shifted, the fever-boiled eyes following Duquet’s rising arm, closing only when the tomahawk split his brain. Duquet struck the hatchet into the loam to clean it, and the owl lifted into the air.

Later, in a neat twist of symmetry, Duquet will encounter the same vengefulness from the other side, and it will be just as ugly. These are the ancestors of the American dream. This is the milieu of the Founding Fathers. It explains a lot.

It’s interesting to see the attitudes the various characters have toward each other, and toward different settlers. Duquet, for instance, is not too fond of Englishmen, Dred-Peacock aside – “By their bulging pale eyes and doughy faces he knew them to be English colonists” – and his business partner Forgeron warns him about the colonists in Maine: “All Maine settlers are voracious thieves of fine timber.” I’ve only lived in Maine for about 20 years (you have to be born here or you’re “from away”), so I don’t take offense; what’s interesting is that the timberland is today still a hot topic around here, though more in relation to paper than lumber.

Dred-Peacock’s view of New Hampshire colonists is even more scathing:

The settlers are hard men, right enough, but there are others even harder, mostly in New Hampshire…They are damned strange cruel men, clannish and proud to a fault, thirsty for vengeance over imagined slights, hard-drinking, and inhumanly tough. They know the country as the poxy Indians know it, and to live free is their banner. They choose to live in the most remote places. And they are key fighters in the escalating antipathy between the French and the English.”

The irony just drips. Not only because “Live Free or Die” is three hundred years later the New Hampshire state motto, but because Duquet himself has many of the same faults.

I’m a bit curious to know where Duquet’s descendents come from, what their fate is, contrasted as Proulx says with the other French settler, who married an Indian woman and sees the world from that side of a very high fence. But curious to read the novel? I doubt it. Historical fiction isn’t my favorite, and I’m further hampered by lack of any likeability in any character. Sympathy for Duquet only gets me so far. But it’s far enough for an excerpt.

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