W.S. Merwin understood the fragility of forests. The poet, who died in March, lived on a conservancy on Maui that he and his wife, Paula, had founded decades earlier. There, they were surrounded by palm trees that the couple had planted as seedlings on what had been depleted land.
“I want to tell what the forests / were like,” Merwin wrote in his poem “Witness.” “I will have to speak / in a foreign language.”
Karl Marlantes strives to speak in that language in his new novel, Deep River.
A grand work that spans decades, beginning in the late 19th century and continuing into World War I and the Great Depression and beyond, the book tells of Finnish immigrants struggling to survive in their new homeland amid the lush, seemingly endless forests of the Pacific Northwest. Marlantes’s blistering first novel, Matterhorn (2010), was a bestseller inspired by his experiences as a Marine during the Vietnam War. For Deep River, the author looks further back, to his childhood: raised in a logging town in Oregon and having worked in commercial fishing in his teens, Marlantes taps his knowledge of the region to create a convincingly detailed portrait of it and its relationship to people who once lived off the land.
“These people were of my grandparents’ generation,” Marlantes says. “I knew them. I am of the last generation that will know them personally…. I didn’t want their stories to be lost.”
Like two other recent, ambitious novels, Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and Richard Powers’s The Overstory, Deep River examines the fate of many people, over many years, against the backdrop of forests that have been around since long before humans reached these shores. That the people at the heart of Deep River are Finns, immigrants that readers don’t come across much in fiction, is a welcome change to the traditional Anglo-Saxon narrative of new Americans forging their way across the continent. Marlantes also presents parallels to debates that are dividing the nation today.
“I was playing with this split in our culture between the individual and the collective,” Marlantes says. “We’re either Reagan Republicans or socialists—God knows where Trump fits on that spectrum. We can’t seem to get it into our heads that we need to combine both points of view to make any headway and avoid the pitfalls and follies of either of the extremes.”
How pleasantly surprising it is, too, to encounter the central character of Deep River—not a brawny he-man of the woods, as one might expect in a story about logging, but rather an outspoken, bespectacled young woman who risks her life to defend the rights of others. We first meet Aino Koski in her native Finland, in a devastating prologue in which the girl survives an 1891 cholera outbreak that has killed half of her family in the countryside. The scene sets the tone for the rest of the novel: people fighting to persevere in an often-unforgiving landscape.
Aino only becomes tougher as she grows older. Black-haired and with “nearly black eyes,” she is an impassioned, caring soul, a reader who keeps The Communist Manifesto at the breakfast table. Her father, who has proudly resisted Russian control of Finland, named his children after the heroes and heroines of The Kalevala, the nation’s epic poem.
Before long, Aino has fled to the United States and transformed herself into a “red trouble maker,” as she is called, although the insults are often far worse. She dances with whomever she pleases and turns down marriage proposals, choosing instead a rebellious path as a rabble-rouser who calls on workers to strike to improve their lot in life. Not that she doesn’t meet with resistance from those she tries to help, including her more business-minded brothers.
Aino’s to-the-barricades commitment to the cause of workers takes its toll, too. She spends much of her life leading rallies away from home and suitors and her family, especially her young daughter, Eleanor. More than once, she’s beaten and imprisoned. To make ends meet, she waits tables and works as a housemaid. She also tries her hand at midwifery, which she learned from her mother. In these scenes, Marlantes excels at conveying dramatic events in simple, direct language.
There is enough mud and blood and violence in Deep River to fill a season of HBO’s savage western series Deadwood, but Marlantes manages to make other scenes exciting as well, as when loggers demand, of all dry subjects, fresh straw for their bunkhouses. His writing is especially strong when he’s describing the intricacies of their labor. “Logging is less about cutting down trees than about moving them,” he writes. “Ideal logs are four to eight feet in diameter and up to forty feet long.… To move a log from where the tree was felled to water deep enough to float it, requires bravery, brute strength, and endurance. More importantly, it requires extremely creative engineering.”
The author also details the hazards of the work around the title’s fictional river, which he modeled on the Naselle River of his childhood: flying cables kill loggers, tons of wood roll over others. Along the way, readers learn terms of the trade, including steam donkey (steam-powered winch), whistle punk (boy logger), and faller (axman).
The book is more than 700 pages long, but it doesn’t read as if it’s a block of Douglas fir: short chapters keep the action moving. Yet, there’s a sameness to a lot of the scenes. Bar fights are so common that if the setting is a saloon, one knows to expect the inevitable brawl.
Some pronouncements meant to resonate in the present day are stated too bluntly, in unlikely dialogue. “Patriotism is going to kill us,” Aino says at one point. “We have to kill patriotism.” At times, characters are given lines better suited for a soap opera: “That man needs his heart back and you, by God, you will go to him with your heart in your hands and you will offer it to him.”
There’s a fair amount of crying and sobbing in the book, and wet lines like this: “The tears were building like a thousand logs against a splash dam about to be exploded with dynamite.” And lazy phrasing mars the text: “the good times stopped rolling,” “hell broke loose,” “they were literally pale comparisons to this girl,” “loggers had literally dropped their tools,” “the canneries literally hummed with the sound of conveyor belts.”
Marlantes is at his best when writing in a calm voice that matches his Scandinavian characters’ stoicism and hard-earned wisdom. Late in the book, Aino and Kyllikki, a fellow long-suffering Finn, take stock of the perils of nature, contrasted with the evil wrought by those around them: “The two women didn’t say a word. They just held on to their warm cups seeking comfort. Being married to a logger and a fisherman, they both had long ago dealt with the possibility of being widows. When it was imminent—a storm, a fire—they were scared, as they were now. No use stating the obvious. But storms and fires were indifferent, neutral. Men were intentional and far more lethal.”
John McMurtrie is the former books editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.
• By Karl Marlantes
• Atlantic Monthly Press, 736 pages, $30