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Deep River by Karl Marlantes

In praise of print

Deep River is a story rich with historical detail spanning the decades of the early 20th century in America and told through the eyes of three siblings, immigrants from Finland, who settle in a logging community in southern Washington. At over seven hundred pages, Marlantes has time to give the reader a long view of each character’s development and their intertwined relationships over the years. The book addresses Finnish culture and the immigrant experience but primarily shines a light on the labor movement in the Pacific Northwest.

The novel begins in Finland at the time of imperial Russian rule. The eldest brother, Ilmari, flees Finland to avoid being drafted into the army. In Washington he acquires a plot of land and starts a blacksmithing business, providing a steady base for the family throughout the story. Four years later the youngest brother, Matti, escapes to America after an altercation with a Russian soldier and finds work in the logging camp near his brother’s home. Their sister, Aino, whose early exposure to Marxist theory and subsequent activism with a Finnish resistance cell results in a prison term, is the last to arrive in the Pacific Northwest. She rejects her brother’s efforts to secure her future by way of marriage to a neighbor and sets off to the logging camp, finding work with a group of women in the company’s cookhouse.

The descriptions of the landscape, rivers, and old growth forests give a vivid picture of these early settler’s lives. Marlantes details the techniques of toppling the huge firs, the mechanics of cutting and moving the timber, the massive saws, the thick steel cables, and the harsh and dangerous work of the men in the trees and operations around the machinery.

Working “dark to dark’’ six days a week for less than two dollars a day,  the loggers are put up in bunkhouses with only straw to make beds and allowed “all you can eat” although a fee for room and board are deducted from their pay. As the owner pushes them to work faster, accidents happen. A gruesome death occurs. From this point the novel depicts Aino’s development as a labor activist. She practices her English language skills by making speeches and organizing the workers to come together in asking for better conditions and fair wages. Early success in this first endeavor propels her to take the message to surrounding towns, crossing paths with Joe Hill along the way and eventually becoming a prominent speaker for the IWW.

Interspersed with Aino’s story are actual accounts of the struggles and successes of the labor movement at the time in Washington and across the nation, including the impact of the first world war. Many businessmen and politicians saw the war as a way for the country to expand business abroad but there was also broad support for staying neutral. Once in the war, the government imposed mandatory conscription but opposition voices continued to rise leading to the establishment of the Espionage Act of 1917. While the intent of the law was to silence and persecute antiwar activists, it also proved to be an effective way to quash the burgeoning labor movement. By painting labor unions as unpatriotic and claiming strikes were being financed by German spies, the workers were labeled as “traitors” thereby sanctioning harassment, imprisonment, physical violence and worse. On the heels of this tactic, the government enacted the Sedition Act which effectively negated freedom of speech, making it a federal offense to speak, write, or publish any opinion considered as opposition to the government, the American uniform or the flag.

Of particular local interest, Marlantes recounts the Centralia Tragedy through the eyes of his characters, some as labor organizers and others as soldiers returned from the war. Also known as the Centralia Massacre and the Armistice Day Riot, the confrontation was the culmination of years of hostile skirmishes between some town leaders and the IWW. During the Armistice day parade on November 11, 1919 a gun battle broke out between the American Legion and union members which resulted in deaths, a lynching, and the imprisonment of many IWW members. With each side claiming  the other fired first, the telling of this history ignites emotions to this day. The stories of the characters’ lives, their families and children continue into the early 1930’s, highlighting the labor movements’ efforts to achieve worker’s rights.

Viewed through such a long lens, the progress of the labor movement is evident although the progress is often “two steps forward, one step back”. The present social division, the push against unions, the wealth inequality, the disinformation campaigns and extreme nationalism parallels the past, illustrating that even after a century the struggle for social justice continues to be a work in progress.

Veronica Atkinson is a retired Registered Nurse, avid reader and advocate of worker’s rights.


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