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Review: Deep River, by Karl Marlantes
Grove Atlantic, 2019. 717 pp. $30

During the early 1900s, Russia’s hard-fisted rule over Finland prompts violent uprising, met with even harder fists. Aino Koski, a young woman committed to the radical nationalist movement, endures imprisonment before she flees to America, to live with her two brothers in the Pacific Northwest. Aino never forgets her losses, familial or personal — deaths, eviction, destitution, torture — and ascribes them all to capitalism. She’s got an argument, but of course it’s a little neat, as is her solution. Her blind faith in revolution, no matter where or when, and rigid reduction of all situations to the same self-righteous formula, wears on those who love her. To give her credit, as an activist with the infant International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, Aino accomplishes minor miracles organizing the loggers in various camps around the Northwest. But her victories and single-mindedness come at great cost, to herself and others.

Wobbly organizer Joel Emmanuel Hägglund, also called Joseph Hillström, became famous as Joe Hill, thanks in part to the song written after his execution in 1915 (courtesy Utah Division of Archives and Records Service, via Wikimedia Commons)

Deep River lovingly portrays Finnish immigrant society, and you don’t need to read the author’s comment at the end to guess that Marlantes has written about his forebears. You see the men quick to violence if they believe their honor in question, and their stoic, maddening, sometimes hilarious refusal to express anything verbally. The women pick up the pieces, guiding their menfolk through difficult moments like loggers breaking up a jam at a narrow point in the river, offering coffee and cake, subtle redirection, or unexpected steel. They hold their own, but boys will be boys.

Whether these characters’ struggles will catch you completely and take hold depends, I think, on your taste for Marlantes’s narrative style. He does an excellent job weaving labor history into his story, and he shows how management’s hired thugs, captive law enforcement, and recruitment of citizen vigilantes crushes the Wobblies and paints them as the instigators. (Management did such a thorough job at public relations that I had admired the Wobblies for their efforts but deplored their methods, only to read here that they preached nonviolence.) Figures; the victors write the history.

It’s a heartbreaking tale, one well worth learning about, but be warned: There’s plenty of violence, even when the Wobblies don’t appear. Marlantes, ex-Marine captain and author of Matterhorn, a superb Vietnam War novel, excels here, as you’d expect. His action scenes carry an electric charge, and the knowledge that these people can and will do anything just about anytime keeps you riveted. He loves his characters, but he doesn’t protect them.

He also keeps you connected through intense physical detail, especially the mud, danger, and squalor of logging camps; and the landscape, whether before the axes fall or, in the following case afterward:

It looked as if a giant had had a temper tantrum, smashing the gigantic trees into slowly bleaching jackstraw piles of splinters, stumps, and snags, and the occasional lengths of abandoned steel cable, some as thick as a man’s wrist, and broken blocks, heavy, grooved wheels called sheaves encased between two steel cheeks through which the cable was threaded. The stumps took [Aino’s] breath away. Her whole family could stand on top of one of them with room for twenty more people, maybe thirty if some of them sat on the edge and dangled their legs over it.

As a Northwest resident (and a tree hugger and hiker), I find these descriptions moving, portraits of what the region looked like before greed and demand for wood got the upper hand.

But Deep River disappoints in a couple significant respects. Aino comes across fully, though I expected more psychological scarring from the torture she received in prison, particularly regarding physical affection from men. Her two brothers and their friends Aksel and Jouka also earn complete portrayals, but the others seem more like figures known for a trait or two. All the women besides Aino are strong, which I appreciate, and they have their moments. Yet I’m not always sure what makes them tick.

More importantly, Marlantes’s way of telling emotions gets in my way. Often, he creates a marvelously tense confrontation, building the drama, only to let the air out with a sentence like: “They stood, looking at each other, love pouring from their eyes.” Deep River’s length and breadth may beg for economy in places — the narration essentially goes until the early 1930s — but these moments deserve their weight, and Marlantes’s descriptive prowess clearly measures up to the task. I just wish he had exercised it.

So take Deep River for what you will, a wonderful story shortened at crucial points, or an involving saga of blood and heroism in rough country.

Disclaimer: I obtained my reading copy of this book from the public library.