The original plan was to time this review of “Deep River” for the Labor Day weekend.
The novel tells the story of Finnish immigrants who settled in Astoria and southwestern Washington in the early 1900s, transforming the landscape with their strong work ethic and forming labor unions to try to elevate the working class. Great grist for Labor Day, right?
But my best intentions faltered when I realized this book was 725 pages long. I had to summon my sisu (that’s a Finnish term you’ll encounter in this book, which roughly translates as perseverance) and start reading, reading, reading.
In an interview with Publisher’s Weekly, author Karl Marlantes concedes that even his publisher’s first reaction to the book was “Great stuff. Too much of it.”
Marlantes’ first novel, “Matterhorn,” a New York Times best-seller, was a hulking 600 some pages. Marlantes grew up in Seaside, and “Deep River” was inspired by his own family’s history.
This epic begins in Finland at the end of the 19th century, a time of emerging nationalism for Finland, which had been under Swedish and then Russian rule. Converging catastrophes of famine, disease, political oppression and violence force three siblings to flee to the United States.
IImari Koski, the oldest, is first to leave. He settles in Deep River (Marlantes models this after the actual Naselle River), clears the forest to farm and builds a church for his community. Little brother Matti is next, and then sister Aino who, after having been radicalized by her schoolteacher, is brutalized by Russian occupiers.
But America has its perils, too.
The work available to immigrants in the Pacific Northwest – resource extraction like logging and fishing – are difficult and dangerous. The brothers throw themselves into it, with sisu.
Aino also pulls her own weight. First she works as a housekeeper to a widowed farmer, the father of five children.
But when he suggests marriage, she quits and instead goes to work in the kitchen at a local logging camp. Seeing the workers’ dismal conditions, she starts sharing the political views she’d first acquired in Finland, urging her co-workers to organize and confront the boss. Soon she affiliates with the Industrial Workers of the World – going further afield to advocate for laborers to join the One Big Union.
Each of the siblings must summon his or her own sisu for the challenges they face. And as each marries, we’re introduced to new characters and an expanding circle of experiences, reactions and solutions.
Marlantes’ characters grapple with xenophobia, rigged political systems, religion and corruption. They deal with violence at home and war abroad.
This story takes place over four decades of astonishing change – from the taking down of primeval forests using axes and “misery whips” to the building of dams for electrical power and the introduction of telephones.
Underlying all of this is the thrum of mythology. Marlantes borrows heavily from The Kalevala, the Finnish national epic rooted in ancient oral tradition. He also acknowledges the threatened belief systems of the New World’s first human residents by including a Native American shaman character.
“Deep River” is ambitious, involving, revelatory – and long!
The Bookmonger is Barbara Lloyd McMichael, who writes this weekly column focusing on the books, authors and publishers of the Pacific Northwest. Contact her at email@example.com