Book review by Aarene Storms: Deep River

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Deep River by Karl Marlantes

I grew up in a place that Annie Dillard described thusly:
God might have created such a plunging shore as this before He thought of making people, and then when He thought of making people, He mercifully softened up the land in the palms of his hands, wherever He expected them to live, which did not include here. (Annie Dillard, The Living)

Now, Karl Marlantes takes a swing at a story of life in the rough-and-tumble of early Washington State. His story centers on three immigrant siblings from Finland: Ilmari, Aino and Mattie.

Ilmari comes to America before the others, builds a home and works to survive and make a living. He, alone of the family, befriends Vasut├Ąti, a Chinook tribal woman (who seems to be all alone in the world, her children having died of measles and the rest of the tribe ... just gone ... for some reason ... also, she can maybe do magic or something...), and he stays as separate as possible from the rapidly-changing modern world.

Ilmari is eventually joined by younger brother Matti who seeks financial stability with Scarlet O'Hara-esque fervor, and sister Aino, an ardent Marxist, whose political beliefs and actions led to imprisonment and torture in Finland. Aino soon becomes the focus of the story as she waves her socialist ideals in the faces of logger barons, rum-runners, and fish-cannery owners, with varying degrees of success.

As anyone who knows local history could have predicted, things go terribly wrong for our Finnish friends. There are logging accidents, fishing accidents, and several "massacres" between local capitalists and the union organizers. Medical science is primitive at best, and death is always nearby.

I grew up hearing stories such as these from the fishing families of my classmates, seeing pictures of tiny loggers cutting down gargantuan trees, learning about the early days of white settlement in my home state. This book tells some stories I already knew, and some that I didn't. To this day, when I ride my horse through the forest near my home, I see stumps bearing springboard cuts: remnants of the days when trees were cut by hand by a couple of guys with a cross-cut saw, hauled out of the woods on skid roads by oxen or horses instead of trucks.

It's not a perfect book, but book groups will enjoy discussing and arguing over many of the points.

Cussing, bleeding, death, sexual situations, torture, happiness, sadness, and fishing.


The events may not have happened; still, the story is true. --R. Silvern

Aarene Storms, youth services librarian
Richmond Beach and Lake Forest Park Libraries, KCLS astorms@kcls.org



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