Review: Deep River, by Karl Marlantes

Who knew that Finns have such a long and proud history of immigration to America?

Certainly not I: in fact, this whole book was an eye-opener. By turns passionate, informative and political, this book is definitely a stonking piece of fiction, and hats off to Karl Marlantes for tackling such a huge topic over the course of one single novel.

Deep River is the story of the Koski siblings: Ilmari, Aino and Matti, who emigrate from Finland to America one by one in order to escape political persecution and build a new life for themselves. They do that in the timber industry, and most of this book (which spans a huuuuuge four decades) charts the family’s attempts to find their way in a new and evolving country.

More than anything else, this book was a history lesson. I had no idea that Finland used to be occupied by Russia and also Sweden, that so many Finns left for America (hundreds of thousands of them, apparently) and that lots of them were so politicised. Along with Ilmari and Matti’s deep dive into the logging industry, the book also charts Aino’s passionate struggle to bring socialism and fairer working rights to America, and her attempt to set up some of the first trade unions in the country.

That was fascinating. However, there was no getting away from the fact that this book is lo-o-o-ng. Probably a tad too long, because I felt moments where my attention started to wander and I began to flick through pages at a slightly-faster rate than usual, just to say that I’d finally cleared the 50% mark. It’s no easy task, condensing so much history into one book, but I think it might have been better as a duology.

What else? I loved the characters: they felt real and made mistakes just like anybody else. Also, people died Game-of-Thrones style in this book; you really couldn’t tell who’d make it to the end and who wasn’t going to. As far as the main characters went, Aino was a little bit too Marmite for me- her reckless devotion to the cause meant that, among other things, she destroyed her marriage and abandoned her daughter for almost five years. Not great.

Despite that, I really found myself caring for the Koski family. It’s impossible not to root for them and for their struggles to make a life for themselves, and this book is a tribute to that struggle. All hail the epic!


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