Deep River by Karl Marlantes is one of those novels that is deeply personal to the author, something he shares with the reader in his author’s notes at the end of the story. Unfortunately, because of the personal nature of the story, the storytelling suffers. It is not because the author is not capable, but rather an overly-enthusiastic attempt to include every single detail of the subject while paying homage to family history.
At its most basic level, Deep River is a fascinating story about Finnish immigrants who settle in Washington state and become players in the logging industry against the backdrop of the growing laborers’ rights movement. There is a lot to love for those who enjoy family sagas of this kind. Family is the heart of the story. The Koski siblings continuously prove that blood is indeed thicker than water, as they weather changing fortunes, political and religious differences, as well as a growing divide between urban versus rural dwellers.
Plus, Mr. Marlantes brings turn-of-the-century logging back to life in all its brutality and insanity. Unfortunately, this is also where Deep River starts its descent because Mr. Marlantes spares no word or description when it comes to logging. Paragraph after paragraph, page after page, he details readers with every aspect of logging life. Granted, loggers were insane to do what they did and deserve their chance to shine. Sadly, the story suffers while they get their chance.
The other area in which Mr. Marlantes proves to be a bit too effusive with his descriptions is with the laborers’ rights movement. While workers’ rights are at the very heart of the Koski family story, his explanations of each side drag on and on. As in the case of the descriptions of logging, while he goes into ideological detail, the story comes to a halt.
In both of these instances, a good editing session could greatly improve the flow of the story while maintaining the detail Mr. Marlantes wants. These bits are interesting by themselves but detract from the overarching story so that it all becomes a bit of a slog to get through.
One true flaw with Deep River is with Aino Koski. While Mr. Marlantes does not portray any female in the best light, preferring instead to stick to various caricatures of women such as the ice queen or the submissive wife, I find Aino to be particularly troublesome. For one, she is utterly incapable of separating ideology from reality when it comes to her belief in communism but has no problems facing reality in every other situation. She is idealistic to a fault and too unrealistic, which is so odd given that Mr. Marlantes takes pains to portray her as supremely pragmatic and realistic.
I particularly struggled with accepting that she turned her back on her child and that any mother would choose an ideology versus caring for her baby. I mean, she literally leaves her infant daughter behind to go help striking workers with only a few sentences describing her guilt at doing so. It isn’t as if she doesn’t love her child. In fact, the birth of her daughter and the feelings that having a child creates in Aino is the one rare scene in which Aino shows that she is capable of emotion. So, to have someone as stoic as Aino willingly give up that love and devotion and put strangers ahead of family in importance flies in the face of what we know about her character. It is almost as if Mr. Marlantes does not understand the mothering instinct at all.
With all that said, I finished Deep River with a greater appreciation for loggers and for those workers who risked everything to fight for shorter workdays, safer work environments, and better benefits. As workers continue to fight for the opportunity to unionize, there are lessons to learn from those early struggles. There is a part of me that continues to mourn the loss of the immense old-growth trees Mr. Marlantes loving describes, but you have to give props to the crazies who felled them with nothing more than wire cable, saws, and muscle. Insane.