A decade ago, American fiction writers had finally begun to reckon with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, packing their observations into taut, gemlike and ironic short stories and novels. Karl Marlantes didn’t get cc’d on that itinerary for post-9/11 fiction. Instead, in 2010 he delivered “Matterhorn,” a heaving 600-page epic about the Vietnam War that was largely about the plodding, crushing effort of a company of Marines to reclaim control of a mountaintop base.
The shelf of Vietnam War fiction was stuffed full, but Marlantes, a Vietnam vet, was confident it could hold one more title. Readers proved him right: Published first by the tiny press El León Literary Arts before Atlantic Monthly Press took it on , “Matterhorn” became a surprise bestseller. Plainly, we craved a big war novel, even (especially) one that wasn’t about the wars we were in. And Marlantes seemed happy to indulge us, making no obvious effort to connect his story to current events beyond a sustained war-is-hell vibe.
There’s something similarly, stubbornly offbeat about Marlantes’ second novel, “Deep River.” (In the interim, he’s published a memoir, “What It Is Like to Go to War.”) It too is a massive work, a 700-plus-page tale about three Finnish siblings in Oregon’s logging country from 1893 to 1932. It is also a literary generation or so out of step. Sweeping assimilation novels, especially about white ethnic groups, have been out of fashion for years, and we already have the Great American Logging Novel: Ken Kesey’s “Sometimes a Great Notion” (1964), a fecund countercultural yarn about the travails of an Oregon logging clan.
Still, Marlantes’s idiosyncratic approach is to his credit: “Deep River” is an engrossing and commanding historical epic about one immigrant family’s shifting fortunes. And though its story is a century old, this time it speaks more directly to America’s current predicament.
The three siblings, who flee Russia-occupied Finland for the United States, are archetypal figures, signifying America’s obsessions with God, money and politics. Ilmari, a pioneer in a land where “timber was wealth that grew every day,” mainly hungers to build a thriving church in his newfound promised land. Following him is his brother, Matti, an unadulterated capitalist who’s set on launching his own logging outfit. Last and most important is their sister, Aino, who since reading “The Communist Manifesto” at 13 has matured into a socialist activist. Her chief skill is as a midwife, which becomes an increasingly unsubtle metaphor — much of the novel turns on Aino trying to deliver better working conditions for the loggers.
What brings together the siblings and many of their fellow immigrants is the Finnish concept of “sisu,” which encompasses moxie, grit and perseverance. All of that comes in handy in a job that pays poorly and can kill you instantly. Matti’s first glimpse of his new home gets his sisu up: “Those logs could roll and crush; those cables could break and fly, taking off arms, legs and heads. Ilmari, however, hadn’t talked about the excitement. Matti wanted to run down into the ravine. He could think of nothing he’d rather do, right now, than be a logger.”
Aino, though, is more concerned about those rolling logs and snapped cables, and she’s soon a leading force in the Industrial Workers of the World’s efforts to unionize the loggers. A card-carrying Wobbly was a dangerous thing to be — beatings, bombings and trumped-up accusations of violence were common. “Deep River” earns its scope in part because it reveals the frustratingly incremental effort to improve conditions — every demand, from straw for bedding to eight-hour workdays, becomes a pitched battle. Powerful company owners stand in Aino’s way, as does the U.S. government: The 1917 Espionage Act targeted Wobblies like Aino who were, as an owner puts it, “red as a fire bucket.”
But the chief weapon brandished against the likes of Aino is rhetoric. “America dangles the distant prize that anyone can get rich like Rockefeller,” explains the Swedish-born labor leader Joe Hill, who strikes up a friendship with Aino. “All you need to do is work harder and save more. If you don’t get rich, it’s your fault.”
Call it meme culture, circa 1910. Marlantes hasn’t written an allegorical polemic about contemporary business — his primary concerns are the romantic fortunes of the siblings and the shifting fates of the workers. But he’s alert to the resonances between the past and present, from law enforcement stifling dissent in the name of “national security” to populist mobs shouting it down with lies and violence. Americans were “twitchy as chipmunks,” Aino observes, and Marlantes knows we’re twitchy still.
“Deep River” is a feat of lavish storytelling; Marlantes ably balances details about the logging industry and the black markets its cheapskate owners help foster, from brothels to bootlegging. But, as in “Matterhorn,” Marlantes’s big-picture storytelling can come at the expense of its line-by-line prose. Lyricism is not his strong suit: “Life was hard. Some people had it harder than others.” His prose can be cutesy and cliched: “The saloon was crowded and lively. The few women were there to work and not play.” And his dialogue can be groaningly sentimental: “If we’re ever apart, know I’ll be looking at the same moon.”
But in this regard, “Deep River” isn’t a descendant of Kesey so much as Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel, “The Jungle,” which was distinguished as much by its homely prose as its moral righteousness. That novel famously helped to improve meat-safety conditions, but it’s also something of a literary relic, an unabashedly activist novel that asked readers to think more broadly about politics. Like “The Jungle,” “Deep River” could use some better sentences. But we could also use more spirited novels like “Deep River.”
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.
By Karl Marlantes
Atlantic Monthly Press. 736 pp. $28