Recently I have been enjoying the limited series (8 episodes) of “Barkskins” on the National Georgraphic Channel. An ad for it popped up when I was checking the weather one day, and it looked fascinating, so I set a calendar reminder for it.
“Barkskins,” based on a part of the book by Annie Proulx, deals with the settlement of Wobik in New France (Canada) in 1693. The eight episodes center around two employees of the Hudson’s Bay Company, Goames and Yvon. They are looking for a Hudson’s Bay employee, Cross, who went missing in relation to a massacre of European colonists along a nearby creek. Consequently, Goames and Yvon work to unravel the mystery of who was behind the massacre. The Iroquois are blamed, but it quickly becomes evident that the Hudson’s Bay Company is mixed up in it.
This is the central story, but there are so many side stories that it is sometimes hard to keep all the characters straight. The French are in charge, but the British are moving in and destabilizing the region. The Native Americans live in two tribes: the Wyandot, friendly to the French and the Iroquois, working with the British.
I find the side stories fascinating because they tell so much of the history of the region. The British are primarily merchants interested in how much money they can make. The French colonists are trying to carve out a life in the wilderness. One character, Trepagny, has a Native American wife and child (filles du pays) but is ecstatic when he is granted a French wife (filles du roi). He wants to keep both, but the women object. Two men are brought over as indentured servants. One intends to keep the terms of his indenture, the other runs away and is a conniving scoundrel.
Tom has two objections to historical stories like “Barkskins.” The first is that people are too clean. That is not an objection he has to this particular series. Most of the people are no cleaner than they should be. Sometimes it is hard to tell different characters apart because they are so dirty. His second objection is that they become soap operas.
The second objection may be valid in this series, but anytime you have a group of people, you have a soap opera. People’s lives are complicated. And “Barkskins” is set in a particularly violent and difficult time. The Wobik villagers have to rely on one another for their safety, but not everyone is trustworthy or working to the same purposes. The Native Americans are trying to accommodate to survive, but who can they trust to have their interests at heart? There is a fair amount of madness among the characters, but then sane people don’t leave their homes to cross an ocean and start new lives. Pay attention to the rating: it is violent with adult themes.
I have enjoyed the series “Barkskins” very much. The characters are compelling and the costumes and setting spectacular. This is not a low budget show. As far as I can tell, it is historically accurate. If you like North American history, I encourage you to stream and watch it.