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Unseen world: ‘Barkskins’ explores mysterious massacre of settlers in 1690s New France

Gus Lafarge confronts Mathilde, played by Marcia Gay Harden, in a scene from the series “Barkskins.” (National Geographic/Peter H. Stranks)

Oftentimes, one could find Elwood Reid sitting in a room by himself.

The days of social distancing aren’t anything new for the acclaimed writer.

Always liking to diversify his writing time, Reid not only writes novels or short stories, but he’s been at the helm of episodes for TV series such as “Cold Case,” “Undercovers,” “Hawaii 5-0, “The Bridge” and “The Chi.”

His latest effort is the National Geographic series “Barkskins,” which begins airing at 7 p.m. Monday, May 25.

“There’s so much TV out there,” he says. “As someone who wants to create, I want to watch a show that I haven’t seen before. When I write, I tend to look for worlds that aren’t on television. Taking on ‘Barkskins’ was a challenge as a writer, because no one has written the world before.”

The series is adapted from the 2016 novel by Annie Proulx.

The series examines the mysterious massacre of settlers in the vast and unforgiving wilds of 1690s New France that threatens to throw the region into all-out war.

Likely suspects abound – the English, the Hudson’s Bay Co. and a band of Kanien’kehá:ka (Iroquois) possibly in league with the English looking to drive the French from the territory – but who or what brought these settlers to such a tragic end?

It is set in Wobik, a small settlement in what is now the Canadian province of Quebec. As the Catholic Church sends Jesuit priests to convert the indigenous people, France sends indentured servants to populate its territory, along with “Filles Du Roi” (“Daughters of the King”), young women to be matched with husbands, start families and help the colonies prosper. This disparate group of outcasts, rogues and innocents must navigate brutal hardships, competing interests and tangled loyalties at the crossroads of civilization: 1690s New France.

Elwood Reid

“This material didn’t scream out for a TV adaptation,” Reid says. “But there was a chance to update the period drama. What makes shows like ‘Peaky Blinders’ and ‘Deadwood’ stand out is that what made them so vibrant was that they weren’t locked in amber. It’s a different pace than we’re used to. This book had all of that.”

Reid got to work and began to find that figuring out a language that would render the period well, yet not put people off.

“Figuring out a way to make the characters weird and pop and make their drive recognizable meant putting them into a pot and start stirring,” he says. “The best (stuff) comes when you don’t know what you’re doing. It comes when you’re scared. That made me want to do it.”

As production began, Reid went up to the set where the villages were built.

It was at that point, seeing all the elements come together, that he knew there was success.

“Putting the actors out there, it felt like you could live in those times,” he says. “Each actor has pulled the best out of themselves for their character. It’s a world like you’ve never seen.”

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