Before you read this review, look up “steam donkey” on Wikipedia. Take a good look at the picture, then return. Now you know what a major piece of equipment looks like in Karl Marlantes’ sprawling tale of immigrants, logging in the Pacific Northwest and what it all has to do with early 20th-century socialism. A doorstopper at over 700 pages, Deep River seems a work born from Willa Cather by way of Upton Sinclair. But this new book is its own animal, and it’s something of a masterpiece.
The story begins at the turn of the last century in Finland, the home of the brilliant, fearless, passionate Aino Koski and her family. At that time, Finland was under Russian rule, and Aino is drawn to socialism and revolution, which she clings to even through bouts of torture whose ghastliness is only hinted at. Her commitment to Comrade Lenin only grows when she and her brothers emigrate—flee is actually a better word—to Washington. Nothing dims her zeal for the coming socialist utopia, not even her troubled marriage or motherhood. Aino brings her baby along to Wobbly (Industrial Workers of the World) meetings or leaves her with her brother and his wife.
Marlantes, author of the powerful war novel Matterhorn, immerses the reader in the life of the Koski siblings, whose worldview is dominated by sisu, a Finnish concept of honor, dignity and inner strength. Sisu requires men and women to be stoic, to always fight for their honor and to work from sunup to sundown. Page after page is dedicated to the dangerous and grueling job of harvesting gigantic trees from old-growth forests—see “steam donkey.” The reader will be in awe of such hard labor done in the service of exploitive bosses who pay little. At the same time, Deep River bemoans the ruin of virgin forests, the pollution of pristine rivers, the fact that 100-pound wild salmon are now scarce. The book extols the love of family and friends and the beauty of the landscape even as that landscape is ravaged.
Best of all, Marlantes’ new novel has more than a few moments of fun and laughter. Even combative Aino can laugh at herself. In Deep River, she takes her place beside Ántonia Shimerda as one of the great heroines of literature.