“Deep River” by Karl Malantes, intimidated me at first because it's 700 pages. However, I could not stop reading the historical fiction novel that begins in 1893 and concludes in 1932.
It’s a family saga, the story of two Finnish brothers and a sister who emigrated to the United States to escape the Russian invasion of Finland. They arrive at different times in the Northwest, moving to Washington and Oregon.
The primary backdrop of the story and of the family dynamics is the IWW, the International Workers of the World, or the Wobblies as they came to be known. This was the beginning of the unionizations of workers which was communist/socialist theory based.
Aino, the sister, becomes the chief spokesperson and recruiter of the Wobblies. At first she doesn't want to compromise or yield to common sense; often she is blinded by her stubbornness and her purist thinking. Her brothers are more comfortable in the capitalist society of the United States than she is. They want to work and support their families.
The brothers’ dreams and hopes are very different from Aino’s. She only wants one union/one world. Through the years, as she matures, she is able to make deals. When it comes to decision-making, she is conflicted throughout the book, rationalizing on many decisions. Eventually, she forgives herself, accepts her regrets, and forgives others, one of whom also is crucial to the story.
The subject matter of the book could be taken from today’s headlines: problems with prejudice in regard to immigrants, fear of those different than ourselves, concern about others taking our jobs, and police raids ordered by the Justice Department. World War I, bootlegging, the Great Depression also play into the family’s story, as does the formation of a new organization, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, led by J. Edgar Hoover.
The author has created believable characters with women playing a very strong role. There is a Native American healer and shaman who’s wise. Aino’s sisters-in-law and some friends are determined, smart, and practical. They help Aino rethink her methods and her philosophies. And sometimes it is a battle.
Woven into the narrative, of course, are several love stories; some work out. Some don’t.
The author’s physical description of the Northwest is beautifully written. Having been there several times myself, it brought back good memories. Historically accurate, Malantes touches on industries in the Northwest, canning, logging, and fishing. His characters are involved in all of them. He also describes the hard and dangerous work and the deplorable living conditions. The author is from this area and fished as a teenager with his grandfather.
“Deep River” is good read. You will enjoy it and learn a lot too. Don’t be afraid of the size. This novel reads well.