Book Reviews

Karl Marlantes

Atlantic Monthly Press

    Louhi hesitated. “You must know my business by now.”
    “A boarding house.”
    Louhi laughed. Ilmari looked at her quizzically.
    “I finance whorehouses and saloons.”
    He blinked.
    Louhi could have been reading his mind. “(My daughter) has nothing to be ashamed of. I own the whorehouse. If you have trouble with it, now is the time to know.”
    “I am a strong Evangelical Lutheran.”
    “So are most of my customers.”

                from Deep River

 

  

An immigrant story with heart, soul, and lots of sisu

We are a nation of immigrants, and of immigrants’ stories. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, his bestselling novel on the Vietnam war, has written a sprawling family epic of the immigrant experience based loosely on his own family’s stories.

Like most such family sagas, it begins in the old country—in this case, Finland in 1893, then under the oppressive rule of czarist Russia. Ilmari Koski, the oldest brother and first to immigrate to America, establishes a small farm and blacksmith business in the Willapa Hills at the mouth of the Columbia River. Later, he is joined by his teenage brother, Matti, fleeing Finland when he runs afoul of the Russian authorities. Their fiery sister Aino must also leave the family home because of her involvement in revolutionary activities (Talk about chain migration!) They are eventually joined by Matti’s friend, 14-year-old Aksel—Disclosure: My paternal grandfather was 15 when he came alone to America from Portugal. I continue to be amazed at the courage, daring and desperation that brings young people to a strange land where they know no one, nor even the language.

Matti and Aksel work in the Naselle area as loggers, while Aino cooks in the logging camps. The life was hard, the work never ending, not even on Sundays (“Only God could get His work done in six days.”) The men are strong, the women stronger, all fortified by sisu—a Finnish word for pluck, courage, inner strength—along with a stolid, stoic non-demonstrative demeanor (“The look of gratitude and pride on Jouka’s face would have brought tears if everyone at the table weren’t a Finn.”)

Aino becomes active with the Wobblies (the International Workers of the World), organizing for better wages and working conditions for the loggers. She meets the charismatic labor organizer Joe Hill, aka Joel Hillstrom, a Swedish immigrant, and witnesses the Centralia Massacre in 1919. Amid her experiences unique to immigrants are also universal moments: “She never imagined getting married would make her lonesome.”

Deep River invites us to remember our own families’ immigrant beginnings. Each new group of immigrants—whether Irish or Germans, Jews or Japanese, Greeks or Hmong—has faced its particular challenges; then as now, few were welcomed.

Let’s hope we make it through this current period of anti-immigrant hysteria and that America continues to be a nation of immigrants. We need the stories.

 


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (February 15-March 15, 2020.) Reprinted with permission.


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