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Karl Marlantes
ARRSE Rating
4 Mushroom Heads
Firstly, an apology to both Mr Marlantes and my reviews editor, I have not only blown past my deadline, but left it so far behind, even Google wouldn’t find it. Life sometimes gets in the way and as a hardback book that’s 700+ pages, Deep River isn’t the most portable of tomes.

Anyway, down to business. Deep River is an epic, sweeping tale of a trio of Finnish siblings who make the perilous journey to America and set up a life free from Russian oppression at the turn of the twentieth century.

Aino, Matti and Ilmari are new to the ways and customs of America, Ilmari is a man of faith who sets up his own church, Matti is a logger who founds his own business and Aino is a firebrand revolutionist who is trying to change the world, but is hobbled by the fact that she is a woman very much in a man’s world. That she can not only compete with the men in ferocity, but triumph against them is a testament to her sisu (Finnish spirit).

The early stages of the book covers logging in exhaustive detail as Matti works for Reder Logging, the owner of which, John Reder, does not brook any interference from kitchen assistant Aino when she pushes for better conditions for the loggers, whose lives are one tiny step up from slavery.

Marlantes’ research is excellent and his simple descriptions of such items as a donkey puncher and other logging terms brings home to the reader the epic battles that man fought with the wilderness in those frontier days. You can almost feel the sap dripping from the pages.

I found myself riveted to the story at this point, where death or dismemberment was a daily, if not hourly test that many loggers failed.

I was impressed that I could be transported from my cosseted position with technology in the 21st century to a time when state of the art machinery was a steam-driven winch is evidence of Marlantes’ thorough research and art of storytelling.

As masterful as it is in places, Deep River isn’t without its faults and some of them are insurmountable.

For me, I felt that the story lost focus after Matti goes independent, but that’s only part of my problems with the book.

I think that Deep River is too short. I know that might seem odd, given the book’s 700 pages or so, but it's covering multiple main characters, secondary characters and tertiary characters over decades, including historical events such as labour riots, the struggle for worker’s rights and a world war.

The problem is that there is so much that happens to so many people, that each incident is just glossed over. Stabbings, shootings, deaths and divorces happen so quickly, there is very little emotional weight given to what should be transformative events. This leads to the reader not being invested in such events because they’ll blow over in a few pages. Matti losing all his money, Reder’s stabbing, Ilmari’s spiritual convergence, all could’ve done with more time spent on them.

I think that Deep River would’ve been better served as a book series, perhaps with one book for each decade. It would allow more detail for the reader to get their teeth into and feel more sympathy for characters that frankly deserve it.

The characters are pencil sketches in this book, with some fading quite early on. I wanted vivid oil paintings of characters, full of tribulations and trials and LIFE!

My other main problem is that for so much of the book, I wanted to shake Aino out of her convictions. She is infuriating in her obstinacy and steadfastness, no matter the personal cost.

Undoubtedly, that is how Marlantes intentionally wrote her, but she’s not sympathetic to me at all. Not until a late-book conversion into a human being occurs at which point she becomes warmer and we care about her.

Having said all that, any book that can tell a tale of Finnish immigrants tree-logging in America at the turn of the century entertaining and at times riveting deserves peoples’ attention.

4/5 Donkey Punchers
Amazon product
First release
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