Barkskins on Hulu: New France

I finally started watching the television adaption of Annie Proulx’s eponymous novel, Barkskins, yesterday, and I am really not sure why on earth I waited this long to do so. It’s pretty obviously my sort of content. I should start this with an acknowledgement: I haven’t read the source material! So I have no clue how closely this adaption (originally on National Geographic, who’d have thought it) hues to the original. But I do know a fair bit about the colonization of North America, and it’s from there that I’m approaching this adaption.

The first episode makes it pretty clear that we’re dealing with a rough lot. We start out with a fire, itself part of a massacre, and soon see the Native men who have been slaughtered for the deaths—yet we learn almost as fast that things are not quite as they seem, and our town is filled with sketchy sorts. (I really wondered if the innkeeping couple were planning to murder any of their guests, although thus far they haven’t stooped QUITE that low.)

“New France” is pretty clearly a beginning episode, the One Where We Meet A Lot of People (although of course not all of them): there are a number of women who certainly appear to be among the filles de roi—King’s Daughters—sent to marry French colonizers and provide French babies to people “New France.” There are convicts and general sleazeballs and people (like the rather innocent-seeming René Sal) hoping for a fresh start, in a land where a (white) man can become anything he hopes to be. (The guy René has been keeping alive, Charles Duquet, is way sleazier, and way less naïve: rich guys, he points out, don’t have callouses on their hands.)

The characters who have caught my eye the most are not the random sleazy Englishmen, nor the trashfire innkeepers, nor the scheming fille de Roi Melissande, nor even the evidently noble René Sal. They are instead company men: Aneurin Barnard as Hamish Goames and Zahn McClarnon as Yvon. It’s a joy to see a Native character treated as a full man and not as a caricature, and I have pretty high hopes that Yvon will continue to be excellent and that other Native characters, as they come fully into focus, will have the same humanity. (This article gives me some hope that this will be the case.)

Barnard’s Goames throws me for a bit of a loop. Barnard has the right eyes for a fanatic, and Goames is fierce and frightening (I think he could brain somebody with that book if he so chose, and he looks pretty proficient with his firepower) and, above, all, decent—he demands equal treatment for Yvon, he is gentle when necessary, he is thorough and meticulous, all traits I, obviously, value. (I don’t think he’s as cultured as Yvon—that would be tough—and I find his all-black ensembles fascinating in the woods, but I really appreciate that attention to detail—and that burning fanatic’s gaze.)

Yet Goames is a company man, working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, come from Scotland to oversee lands and shipping routes—and people—in America. I don’t remember the Hudson’s Bay Company setting much stock in decency, though they certainly prized meticulous records: English colonizing companies have always been fond of keeping good records. (This is probably a mark of colonization the world over—certainly Spain and Portugal kept pretty good records, many of which remain to this day.)

I like both Hamish Goames and Yvon. I like them as a team, and I like them separately, one obsessively meticulous, one reciting poetry to the trees. I’m not sure that Goames is historically accurate in the least, and I’m definitely going to be refreshing my memory of the Hudson’s Bay Company. But I’m also ready for this ride, wherever it’s going to take me.