Karl Marlantes’ new novel has all the elements of a classic immigrant story, as his characters, newcomers to America, encounter a strange land and an incomprehensible language. But the immigrants in “Deep River” (Atlantic Monthly Press) aren’t Central American, Chinese or Irish — they’re Finns, and they’re based on Marlantes’ ancestors, men and women who settled southwest Washington and Northwest Oregon in the late 19th century and labored under dangerous and daunting conditions to make a home there.
The Seattle-based Marlantes is known worldwide for his breakout 2009 novel, “Matterhorn,” said by some to be one of the best novels ever written about the Vietnam War. It’s certainly one of the most successful — to date, “Matterhorn” has sold more than 500,000 copies, and has been translated into 10 languages, according to the publisher. “Deep River” shares several elements with “Matterhorn,” including memorable characters, dark humor, painstaking attention to detail and breathtaking action scenes.
But “Deep River” has something new — though it’s a saga of fishermen and loggers, war veterans and businessmen, there’s also an ensemble of strong women characters. Marlantes’ heroine, Aino, is a political agitator who flees Finland and makes her way to the logging camps of western Washington and Oregon. She stirs up a heap of trouble trying to organize for the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies), who are advocating for better pay and safer working conditions, to halt an epidemic of logging-based injuries and deaths. Wily, stubborn and idealistic, Aino has a gift for making bad choices, “a fool with a big heart just the right size for breaking,” in the words of one exasperated friend.
Aino and other principals in “Deep River” are inspired in part by characters in the “Kalevala,” an epic poem based on the mythology of the Finnish/Karelian people. But their struggles are realistic and historic — many real-life episodes of Washington history, including the Centralia massacre, are plot points in the book. Marlantes appears July 8 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. He recently answered some questions about “Deep River” — this is a condensed version of the conversation:
In an afterword to “Deep River,” you talk about the story’s relationship to your own family. What are the connections?
I grew up in Seaside, an Oregon logging town, and went to high school there. I was born in Astoria, where I went fishing with my grandfather. Logging and fishing are in my background, and Finnish. Both my grandmother and mother’s first languages were Finnish (Marlantes’ father was Greek). My biological grandfather was Norwegian and my stepgrandfather was Swedish.
A lot of what the novel explores is how similar things are for immigrants. It’s not Finns any more, it’s Vietnamese and Guatemalans, but it’s the same problems — how long do you hang on to the old country and its customs, and when do you become American.
Who is Aino based on?
She’s based on a character from the “Kalevala,” and, I think, some of my aunts. That generation — they were tough cookies. It’s a myth that these women were under the thumbs of their husbands. They were unbelievably strong women.
My grandmother didn’t actually get thrown in jail [in “Deep River” Aino is imprisoned by Finland’s Russian occupiers, then tortured and raped, then jailed again in America], but she was a communist. The Daily Worker was on the kitchen table. Most Finns brought socialism over from Finland — they came from an oppressed country.
Today we have this fear of anyone who has a different political attitude from us. My grandmother was a communist, but her kitchen was clean. She wasn’t scary, but today we gin up the fear. The Patriot Act and the Espionage Act [U.S. legislation that suppressed dissent during World War I] were very similar — let’s give up some freedom because we are afraid.
I didn’t realize that the Wobblies, who today are thought of as very militant, were so strong in the logging camps: in the era you write about, you note that over half of the loggers west of the Cascades held Wobbly membership.
The Wobblies were a union that was not organized along craft. They included everybody — loggers, textile workers, one big union, with the idea that only the people could stand up to the forces of capitalism …
They ended up getting crushed because they didn’t play ball like the AFL [American Federation of Labor] did, that and the Espionage Act. The Wobblies were nailed for being unpatriotic [the Wobblies were assailed for striking for better working conditions in the thick of World War I]. The conditions in the logging camps were terrible. My uncle told me that they had to go on strike to get dry straw to sleep on.
In “Deep River” you talk about sisu, a strain of human character greatly admired by the Finns, a sort of endurance beyond what you think you can endure. What is sisu?
It’s a combination of stubbornness, courage and stoicism. You just never quit. You’re 5 years old, you fall down, you skin your knee, and your mother says, stop your crying. That’s sisu. It’s what won the Finns’ 1939 war against the Russians, though later, the Russians came back and crushed them.
Those early pioneers in Northwest America were tough people. We’ve lost a lot of that. That’s one of the ironies — as we’ve solved problems, we’ve lost a lot of toughness. Is that good or bad? I wish we could have both, but I don’t know if it’s possible.
“Deep River,” by Karl Marlantes, Atlantic Monthly Press, 724 pp., $30
Author appearance: Karl Marlantes will read from and discuss “Deep River” at 7 p.m. Monday, July 8, at Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., Lake Forest Park, thirdplacebooks.com