Reviews: September/October 2019

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Deep River
Karl Marlantes ’67
Atlantic Monthly Press, $30
Reviewed by Alex Beam ’75

Alex Beam’s next book, on Mies van der Rohe and Edith Farnsworth, will appear in March from Random House.

Deep River spans two continents and five generations of a farming family from the Finnish hinterlands. The Koskis know only conflict. Fleeing the Russian occupiers of their homeland at the turn of the last century, they relocate to the towering forests of the Pacific Northwest. Their adopted land holds many surprises for them: near-starvation wages; logging bosses who treat workers like chattel; thug armies that can be mobilized at the blast of a whistle to beat any thoughts of labor unions out of militant workers. Or kill them, if necessary.

Deep River has a Tolstoyan list of dramatis personae, but they all support the main character, the fiery Aino Koski. We meet Aino as a child of the late nineteenth century and follow her all the way to her 1969 retirement ranch-house overlooking the Columbia River. The beautiful, untamable Aino dominates Deep River, which, author Karl Marlantes tells us, is loosely informed by The Kalevala, the epic poem of Finland. (Marlantes wrote the Vietnam War novel Matterhorn. His Finnish ancestors settled in southwestern Washington in the 1890s.)

Aino Koski is a revolutionary in every sense of the word. In Finland, she collaborates with the “Reds,” the anti-Russian partisans fighting the tsar’s soldiers garrisoned in Finnish homes. In the United States, Aino joins the Wobblies, the militant Industrial Workers of the World, who don’t hesitate to use force to further their demands. She wills herself to be free of bourgeois attachments such as marriage and child-rearing. This proves to be more easily imagined than accomplished.

Marlantes also invites real characters into the grand flow of his story. Aino has a brief affair with a young IWW organizer named Joe Hillström (an attachment with fateful consequences for her). At 81, Aino will hear her lover’s alias on the radio, sung in a clear soprano: I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night / As alive as you and me.

Fiction, myth, history, and art cascade down from the Pacific Northwest highlands and merge into the narrative flow of Deep River. It is an impressive achievement.