When I first heard there was a new Karl Marlantes novel coming in 2019 I was instantly bursting with excitement. Matterhorn was one of the best books I have ever read. It was a book that took decades to get published and it was quite possible it may never have seen the light of day. Thank goodness it did. Karl Marlantes followed this novel up with a brilliant non fiction book, What It Is Like To Go To War. Part biography but more a philosophical look at what going to war means intellectually and spiritually both for an individual and for a society as a whole. Both books were insightful, passionate, honest and confronting. I literally could not wait to see where Karl Marlantes turned his attention to next.
Deep River is set in North Western America in the early twentieth century. The story follows three siblings who are forced to flee Russian occupied Finland in search of freedom and opportunity. The siblings find themselves on America’s frontier, surrounded by trees the size of which is literally unimaginable. Brothers Ilamri and Matti set to logging as the growing nation of the United States has a seemingly unquenchable thirst for timber to fuel its rapid growth. Their sister Aino, who was already heavily involved in the socialist movement back in Finland, quickly turns her attention to organizing the workers logging the surrounding hills, who slave away in terrible conditions for meagre wages. Marlantes brilliantly captures the time and the brutal conditions of the logging camps. The description of the forests and the trees these men fell with little to no machinery is amazing (although after reading Richard Powers’ Overstory my heart breaks as these magnificent and majestic towers come down in ever increasing numbers). Marlantes also expertly portrays the conflict between workers and owners and shows how this relationship evolves with the changing times and the changing economics of the area.
It is impossible not to compare this novel to Matterhorn. Both are complete epics that suck you into the harsh and brutal worlds they both depict. They are also both deeply personal and political stories. However there is much more room in Deep River for Marlantes to explore. This novel is richly built and layered with a cast of characters that grows and expands as each sibling slowly and carefully carves out their new lives far from home and then must fight and make sacrifices to keep it.
This is an epic story about family and migration by a writer of immense skill and passion.