A Western author wades into murky political waters

The blind spots, omissions and caricatures of ‘Deep River’ fail to contend with the historical realities of the Northwest or the current political climate.

 

Reading is a political act. The viewpoints we choose to consider, the perspectives we expose ourselves to, help shape our worldview and sympathies. The importance of reading in a deliberate fashion is heightened in fractured political climates. Even when literature masks itself as neutral, every narrative makes a statement by calculating who is included, and who plays a subservient or silent role.

Deep River, Karl Marlantes’ latest novel, is a lengthy tome that lionizes Scandinavian loggers — white immigrants who pull themselves out of poverty by sheer force of will. In the current political climate, the narrative seems particularly out of touch. The novel’s singular focus on European immigration and industry in the Pacific Northwest mirrors the political divisions that persist in the region today, where a disproportionate number of white extremist and hate groups have found a home.

Marlantes’ narrative vividly depicts the Pacific Northwest logging boom of the early 1900s and the strong-willed individuals who valiantly made lives for themselves. Read in a vacuum, the book has its pleasures. But contextualized in the unsettling sticking point between literature and politics in 2019, the novel valorizes extractive industries, erases people of color and tokenizes local Indigenous people.

Still, over the course of its 700 pages, it is easy to be swept up in the literary grandeur of Deep River. Crafted like fine, hand-carved furniture, Marlantes’ prose is meticulous in every detail. He has breathed intoxicating life into a rugged world and created a vivid portrayal of life under the canopies of towering Douglas fir and Sitka spruce.

A 1906 stereograph shows two men felling a giant fir tree in the Cascade Mountains, Oregon.
Library of Congress

Deep River follows the Koski siblings, all born in Russian-occupied Finland, as they make their way to America. First to tackle the journey is Ilmari, a hard-working jack-of-many-trades who settles in southernmost Washington state. He is later joined by his younger brother, Matti, who was forced to flee Finland after violently confronting occupying Russian soldiers. Last to arrive is young Aino, a headstrong revolutionary socialist who flees after a direct action goes horribly wrong. They reconvene just north of the mouth of the Columbia River, where the Deep River flows into Willapa Bay.

The Koskis are literal bootstrappers, slogging through mud in caulk boots and felling trees for penance wages but always dreaming of starting their own operation, just like their union-busting boss, John Reder, did. Loggers of that era were more likely to die in workplace accidents than become timber barons, but the American dream, then as now, is steeped in hope, hard work and false promises.

The false promises of the early 20th century echo contemporary political pandering to loggers and coal miners. Despite shrinking markets and the existential threat of climate change, the Trump administration has supported increasing logging on federal lands and courted loggers who opposed climate change legislation in Oregon. A glossy retrospective about logging, however entertaining, published in this political context begins to take on a different hue.

The novel also creates a problematic vision of race and American identity. Take Matti, the preternaturally talented logger who works impossibly long and hard hours without complaint, as an example. He’s painted as the ideal immigrant, grim and determined, hardworking and family-oriented — rather like the type of immigrant Donald Trump must have had in mind when he said in 2018 that “we should have more people from places like Norway.”

Meanwhile, the local Chinese immigrant population warrants just a handful of fleeting references before one last offhand mention in the last third of the book: “Because the Chinese had been forced to California, the salmon-canning factories always had jobs for women on a piecework basis.” For all of the book’s exacting details, no ink is spilled over the racist policies that forced those Chinese immigrants out of Astoria.

Marlantes does not appear to be playing into this narrative knowingly. His novel is so laser-focused on the Finnish community that it seems he has excluded all others by omission rather than intention. Intentional or not, the erasure remains.

The author settles for antiquated stereotypes in describing the relationship between a wise, shamanistic Native Chinook woman named Vasutäti and Ilmari Koski. They meet when Vasutäti finds Ilmari alone in the woods, badly injured. She nurses him back to health, bonding the two for the rest of their lives. Throughout the novel Vasutäti makes periodic appearances, usually to exert her magic healing powers when a Koski family member is in urgent medical distress.

While Deep River is beautifully crafted, its blind spots and caricatures fail to contend with the region’s historical realities. Marlantes’ omissions amount to an uncomfortable silence that offers little insight into how the Northwest’s history has brought us to where we are today, as white supremacist groups brawl in the Portland streets, legislators flee the state instead of considering climate legislation, immigrants of color are held in detention centers, and the president of the United States openly shows his support for white nationalism.

Mary Slosson is a writer based in Portland, Oregon. She was formerly a Reuters correspondent covering the American West. 

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