In the late 17th century two illiterate woodsmen, Rene Sel and Charles Duquet, make their way from Northern France to New France to seek a living. Bound to a feudal lord, a 'seigneur', for three years in exchange for land, they suffer extraordinary hardship, always in awe of the forest they are charged with clearing, sometimes brimming with dreams of its commercial potential. Rene marries an Indian healer, and they have children, mixing the blood of two cultures. Duquet travels the globe and back, starting a logging company that will prosper for generations. Proulx tells the stories of the children, grandchildren, and descendants of these two lineages, the Sels and the Duquets, as well as the descendants of their allies and foes, as they travel back to Europe, to China, to New England, always in quest of a livelihood or a fortune, or fleeing stunningly brutal conditions.
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