Book Review: DEEP RIVER, a well-researched book that gets buried in details

Marlantes, Karl - Deep River (4)Deep River
Karl Marlantes

Deep River follows the Koski siblings–Aino, Ilmari, and Matti–from childhood in Russian-occupied Finland to their settlement in the Pacific Northwest as they enter adulthood and begin families of their own. Ilmari, the first to arrive in the United States, homesteads on a large piece of land he received. Matti, the youngest, embraces capitalism as a way to protect himself from fears seated in childhood. Aino, however, the middle child and only girl, interested in communism from a young age, delves into the labor movement.

In the community that survives largely on fishing and logging, the Koski siblings encounter many fellow Finns as well as Swedes, some of whom they knew in their hometown. Their business dealings and activism–not to mention relationships–take them in and out of each other’s orbits, while Aino, a stubborn lightning rod, often attracts danger from powerful business and political interests. They also face obstacles from nature–sometimes dry spells, sometimes too much rain–from world events, and from the economy.

Karl Marlantes’s Matterhorn is a tour de force, combining an engrossing setting with fully realized, unforgettable characters. In that novel, the details of being a soldier in Vietnam are so vividly drawn, it’s visceral, and the frustrations and injustice deeply felt.

In Deep River, Marlantes conveys the same comprehensive awareness of setting born of personal experience and extensive research. No matter the context–a socialist meeting, a fishing boat, a logging site, or a bootleggers’ shootout–Marlantes provides encyclopedic knowledge. On the one hand, this can be very interesting, and I definitely learned a lot. On the other, it can be almost overwhelming and at times distracts from the story, bogging it down in unnecessary details.

Because the book seemed to want to address every historical event in the time period over which it was set–some more tangential to the narrative–such as the Spanish Flu and the introduction of the automobile, the story is very long and bloated without a clear focus. Probably the most accurate answer to what the story is about would be that it charts Aino’s growth. Unfortunately, I found her a less than sympathetic character. This is surprising to me because she is a strong, independent woman before her time. Yet, she is clearly unable to read a crowd, and is so stubborn, she is selfish. Characters I was more interested in such as Vasutäti, a Native American elder, and Aino’s niece, Mielikki, had less of a role in the story. Overall, though, I think that the novel would have benefited from a ruthless editor who provided focus for the narrative while eliminating the unnecessary technical details of the logging and fishing crafts.

Also, I was uncomfortable with how Marlantes used gender and cultural stereotypes without problematizing them. Finally, I was most disappointed in the writing style which I found less than polished. The transitions were often awkward, and the sentence structure led to a choppy, discordant flow.

Dark River definitely includes interesting debates about socialism and unionization. During World War I, not just corporations and the state government, but also the military became involved in union busting. The skirmishes between the Industrial Workers of the Work (IWW), Ainoe’s union, and law enforcement, deputized citizens, and “patriots” were hard to imagine until you consider the types of conflicts in our streets today.

Despite the flaws, this book should appeal to die-hard historical fiction fans as well as those who are interested in the history of the Pacific Northwest, particularly the logging and fishing industries, or about unions in the early 1900s.

Thank you to NetGalley and Grove Atlantic / Atlantic Monthly Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: WE WENT TO THE WOODS, an experiment in communal living

Dolan-Leach, Caite - We Went to the Woods (2)We Went to the Woods
Caite Dolan-Leach

After suffering a public humiliation and being skewered by social media, twenty-something Mack Johnston retreated to her parents’ house in Ithaca, New York, returning to her high school catering job. Isolated and disillusioned, Mack was searching for connection, and she found that in Louisa, Beau, Chloe, and Jack, a foursome with easy camaraderie and undefined physical boundaries.

When Louisa suggests they move to a one hundred acre plot of land in a nearby rural area, the group quickly rallies around the idea of challenging capitalism and promoting environmentalism though building a self-sufficient community that they call the Homestead. They each pay Louisa’s father $10 to rent the land for a year and begin the process of preparing the rundown structures, planting the garden, and collecting firewood for the winter. Although filled with enthusiasm, only Jack has any farming experience, and the perils of an upstate New York winter are more dangerous than they expected. They also became embroiled in a feud with a neighbor using pesticides on his crops, charging that their use would harm the shared water table. Additionally, the pull of a more militant nearby group, the Collective, strained the relationships of the Homestead group.

Internally, the members of the Homestead, too, were less united than they realized. Far from having a collective vision, their individual goals overlapped but didn’t always correspond, and their secrets threatened to destroy the trust required for living in such close quarters. The loose sexual relationships, too, fomented jealousy and competition.

Mack learned that Hector, the city where the Homestead was located, had long ago housed a group that split from the Oneida Community. Diving into research, she resolved to learn as much as she could about these other communes to determine what went wrong–and to keep it from happening at the Homestead–unless, intentional communities were bound to fail.

In the first few chapters, before the group moved to the Homestead, I found the characters, especially Beau, and their manner of talking completely insufferable and didn’t know if I could handle an entire book filled with such pomposity. However, either I became used to it, or, when they moved to the country, these tendencies were diminished.

We Went to the Woods is packed with information, from Mack’s social media disgrace and our reliance on technology, to environmental dangers like pesticides and fracking and the legitimacy of efforts to curtail them, the possibility of free love (or complex marriage in Oneida terms), the danger of charismatic and controlling leaders, the extent to which the past plays out in the present, the possibility of running from pain, mental illness and psychiatric medication, and, of course, the viability of intentional communities.

While all of these ideas are important and valid, having them in one novel made it difficult to determine their relationship. Furthermore, some of these motifs, by the nature of their quantity, were not developed. These things combined made it difficult for me to fully understand Dolan-Leach’s purpose in including them, if not just for verisimilitude.

I shouldn’t make it sound like I didn’t like the novel, because I did, quite a bit in fact. Actually, I live in Hector, where the fictional Homestead is located. (As far as I know we aren’t swarmed with communes, but anything is possible!) I felt like I was reading the journal of a real person because the setting was so accurate, such as Ithaca with the pretention of Cornell-associated professors and students and the suicide risks of the gorges. Watkins Glen did indeed have a Wildflower Cafe, though it recently has been turned into an overpriced prohibition-themed bar. Wineries line Highway 414, and the Finger Lakes National Forest is over 16,000 beautiful acres.

Very sympathetic to the Homestead’s concerns about the environment and income inequality, I’d hoped for their experiment to succeed, and felt dread as their decisions seemed to pull them further and further apart, putting them in dangerous situations leading to inexorable paths. Still, the novel ended on a hopeful note for Mack and for those with a dream of doing things better.

Thank you to NetGalley and Random House for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Seneca Lake

Seneca Lake

Hector Winter (2)

Hector in Winter

Ithaca Falls

Ithaca Falls