Deep River

Written by Karl Marlantes
Review by Janice Ottersberg

Covering the years 1893 through 1932, Deep River begins in Russian-occupied Finland with the Koski family. Economic hardship and political upheaval force three of the Koski children to immigrate to America’s Northwest and put down roots near the Columbia River and the fictional Deep River among the Finnish and Swedish community. Ilmari is a farmer, blacksmith, and eventually a sawmill owner, while Matti is employed by a logging company striving for his own company. Their sister Aino is a political activist in Finland, and after a brutal imprisonment, joins her brothers. She continues promoting her socialist ideals by pushing for safer working conditions and better pay for the loggers. She doggedly campaigns for unions and recruits members, which creates conflict within the family.

This family saga of births, marriages, deaths, betrayals, and life struggles is overshadowed by the technical details of the logging industry. There are long, tedious descriptions of the “steam donkeys,” which replaced teams of oxen, and the logistics of stringing cables, drums, skidders, gears, steel blocks, springboards, chains, etc. Marlantes describes the great effort and human cost required to strip the majestic forests of its towering 200-foot trees and the movement of these massive logs up to 20 feet in diameter to market. It is disturbing to read about the aftermath of stripped and abandoned landscapes littered with 6- to 10-foot tall dead stumps, broken cables, slash (wood debris), trash, and mud.

The novel also gets bogged down in extensive, repetitive details about the ongoing labor conflicts. The story is told chronologically in a plodding, pedantic manner, jumping from fact to fact and character to character with snippets of plot along the way. It is not an exposé on what logging does to the environment, but an in-depth historical account of the logging industry and the labor movement of the early 20th century.