I personally have always loved the Family Saga genre. I grew up devouring R. F. Delderfield’s books and the books of Susan Howatch, and so I’m always on the lookout for new and different takes on the multi-generational saga, combining history with a bit of soap opera, and we are fortunate that we have two new, very different but very appealing entries in the genre this month at the Field Library.
Annie Proulx needs little introduction; even people who aren’t up on literary fiction are familiar with Brokeback Mountain, the movie based on her novella of the same name. Her newest book, Barkskins, takes us to the early days of European settlement on the North American continent in the 17th century, with the story of two men, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, who travel from France to New France as indentured servants of a seigneur for three years in order to gain land of their own. Faced with the strangeness and awesomeness of the great forests of the new world, the two men take different tacks. Rene marries a Native American healer and his descendants mix the heritage of old and new worlds; Charles builds his own logging company and makes a fortune. Proulx follows the children and grandchildren of these two men, their rivals,and their allies, through the next three centuries, watching empires grow and fall, the environment change as a result of their efforts and the changes of the Industrial Age. Like the best family sagas, Barkskins focuses on the details of individual people’s lives and struggles and in so doing, illuminates the bigger historical picture.
Yaa Gyasi’s book, Homegoing, is also a book that follows two different families through the centuries, but she focuses on the African diaspora, starting with two half sisters in Ghana in the eighteenth century. One marries an Englishman and becomes part of the upper class, while the other is sold into slavery and sent to the Americas. We follow both lines of the family, who are unknown to each other, and watch tribal wars and fights against colonialism in Africa and the horrors of slavery, the Civil War, and the Great Migration in America. The African side of the story is less well known to American readers: the hows and whys of that end of the slave trade, and the damage done to the people left behind, those who were complicit in the kidnapping and selling of other human beings and those who suffered the losses of family and friends. The complexity of the slave trade and the human costs to all concerned give a depth to the stories of the descendants of the two sisters at the beginning of the book, and give us a different perspective on family and history.