Deep River by Karl Marlantes

Deep River
By Karl Marlantes
Grove Atlantic, 2019 

Deep River by Karl Marlantes Grove Atlantic 2019

This 700-page historical novels operate under a heavy burden under the best of circumstances, obviously. In the age of Twitter, that burden is increased proportionally. And there are two additional burdens sitting on the shoulders of Deep River, the sprawling new novel by Karl Marlantes, the first being the critical and commercial success of 2010 novel Matterhorn, a 650-page historical novel about the Vietnam War, a fine illustration of a tough act to follow. And the second is if anything more daunting: Deep River is set against the backdrop of industrial logging in the Pacific Northwest, the same backdrop readers encountered in Annie Proulx’s massive 2016 novel Barkskins. Presumably Deep River is pitched to the same sliver of the reading public: adventurous marathoners interested in the minutiae of the logging industry’s history. Two such marathons in less than five years is a lot of logging. 

Readers of Matterhorn will know some of the incentives here: Marlantes writes smoothly readable prose and has a solid skill at developing characters over time. The three main characters here are the Koski siblings, Ilmari, Matti, and Aino, all Finnish immigrants joining the logging community of Washington State in the early decades of the 20th century. Marlantes captures the feel of that immigrant enclave with sensitivity, and he’s lavish with technical and period detail: readers will quickly find themselves submerged in the nuances of expat Finnish culture and the dangers of big-timber logging. 

These strands converge in the character of Aino, who is smarter than her siblings and much more outspoken, a woman who “loved being in the thick of things” and solving problems for the men around her. When Aino begins to focus on the inhuman wages and working conditions endured by loggers, she finds the problem that will define her life. She joins the Industrial Workers of the World (scornfully called “Wobblies”) and becomes a labor organizer. 

What follows is a procession of roughly 250 scenes shaped to show her grit and determination in the face of opposition from exploitative logging barons. A confrontation she has with one such baron, a camp boss named John Reder, is fairly typical. “What will it take to avoid a strike?” he asks her. 

“You know what the IWW demands are.” 

“You’re asking too much. It’ll put me out of business.” 

“Not if the whole industry bears the same costs. All we’re asking for is fairness and human dignity. If we don’t get it, we’re prepared to fight for it.” 

Reder looked at her like a father trying to reason with an intelligent teenager convinced of her moral superiority. “The meeting in Nordland will definitely ensure labor costs are the same: low everywhere. Compromise with me.” 

“Mr. Reder, if I compromise, I’ll be a scab.” 

Reder talks to her husband Jouka and makes things starkly clear: if Aino gives another rabble-rousing speech, Reder will fire Jouka and evict them both from their company house. Aino immediately gives another speech, and Jouka is fired, and they’re evicted. 

The narrative follows Aino with a leaden focus that readers might well come to dread. Leases, rentals, furniture, speeches, documents, pay rates, long, dark nights of the soul - we never miss one, until the whole thing starts to feel like Norma Rae in naisenlakki. Even when Aino’s love life moves on from sad-sack Jouka to charismatic and far more empathetic Askel Langstrom, the novel’s penchant for exposition is unchecked - only now it’s Askel taking on his share of the speechifying, in this instance warning Aino about the Big Picture costs of her activism: 

“Ordinary people,” he said, “the little guy and his wife, will be thrown out of cannery work up and down the river. Truckers will be put out of work. Restaurants and butcher shops won’t have any fish. The price of fish will skyrocket and ordinary working-class housewives won’t be able to buy.” He gave her time to think about the chain of interrelated events. “The cannery owners will call for the National Guard. The politicians will be able to call the Guard out because they’ll say you’re hurting the little guy - and you are. And that’s just what they’ll tell the voters. It doesn’t mean the strike is wrong. Just that you need to see beyond the self-righteous us versus them. Politics is just war by another means. And there’s no glory in war.” 

In a very different novel, one that reflected the whittled finished product more than the towering old-growth tree, such perorations would be fewer and more pointed, and perhaps Marlantes wouldn’t feel quite so indulgent about how often and in how many ways he emphasizes Aino’s tenacious sainthood, particularly at the cost of her three-dimensional humanity - a humanity that’s very affecting when it’s allowed to show. “I hurt Jouka for a cause I believed in,” she tells Askel late in the novel. “I wish I hadn’t.” 

Deep River is impressively ambitious, but it strikes a very different tone from anything in Matterhorn (or in Barkskins, for that matter). Despite its author’s attempts at building a cast and a world, this is very much the novel of a single character. How interesting or sympathetic readers find Aino will in large part determine whether or not they plow on through to the end of the book. Since she’s unchangingly and uncompromisingly herself from the moment we meet her, on Page 6, curling up with the Communist Manifesto, those readers will know soon enough who deep they’re willing to go. 

--Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Historical Novel Society, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The National, The Washington Post, The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is