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.

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