By Marcus Widenor
For years I’ve told people that Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion is “The Great Oregon Novel.” But that recommendation came with a caveat: Remember that the heroes of Notion (the Stamper family) are scabs, who try to break a logger’s strike on the Oregon coast!
Karl Marlantes historical novel Deep River provides a welcome counterpoint to this. Instead of Kesey’s libertarian treatise on tough, logger individualism, we are offered a story of the collective efforts of immigrant workers to improve their lives.
Marlantes grew up on the Oregon Coast and is of Finnish ancestry. Deep River is his 3rd book, after the widely acclaimed Matterhorn, a novel that chronicled his experience as a Marine in Vietnam.
The novel traces the story of Aino Koski, who emigrates with her two brothers from Finland to the mouth of the Columbia River in the early days of the 20th century. They are loggers and fisherman, sometimes bootleggers and small entrepreneurs.
Many historians have noted Finnish American’s proclivity for radicalism and Aino is no exception. She is a firebrand of a Wobbly. “Our Pacific Northwest Rebel Girl,” as one character describes here.
Deep River is set on the Nasalle, just north of the mouth of the Columbia on the Washington side. Readers will find many familiar Washington and Oregon locations, including the burgeoning Finnish immigrant community of Astoria, some small towns that no longer exist, and others that Marlantes has renamed.
Aino arrives in Washington as a skilled midwife, but soon takes a job as a cook in a logging camp, giving her wide access to the workers she seeks to organize. She struggles to maintain a semblance of a family life while traveling between logging camps and mills throughout Washington and Oregon, organizing for the IWW. The narrative includes accounts of numerous famous labor events, including the massacre at Everett in 1916, the 1919 lynching of Wesley Everett in Centralia, and the Palmer Raids that decimated the IWW following World War II. Aino even has a brief dalliance with Joe Hillström (Hill), the legendary IWW activist and songwriter.
Marlantes has done his historical homework here. He offers a nuanced view of the development of the Astoria workers cooperative movement, and the political divisions within the Finnish community, between “reds” and “whites.”
Deep River is suffused in the details of the cultural the Finns brought with them to the Pacific Northwest—the folk tunes that fuel the weekend dances in the logging communities, even the distinctive baked goods the women turn out for the loggers in the camps. Our heroine Aino epitomizes what the Finns call Sisu—an almost metaphysical concept of strength, self-determination and endurance. She stands up to the brutal environment of life in a logging camp, she stands up to the bosses, and she stands up to her husband who wants her to stay home rather than traipse around the northwest organizing. Another interesting character in the novel is Vasutäti, a Chinook shaman who seems to combine the philosophy of Sisu with her own cultures spiritual traditions.
The book also focuses on the human costs of logging and fishing, two of the most dangerous jobs in our country in any historical era: the choker setter’s body cut by the whip of a snapped cable, the fisherman lost at the mouth of the Columbia trying to bring in his last gill nets as the storm closes in. These are the injustices Aino fights against as she tries to organize workers into the One Big Union.
Marlantes carefully chronicles how work changed in logging and fishing during the first third of the century. When Aino arrives in Washington logging is done by steam donkeys, hauling logs up the steep terrain of the Washington and Oregon coast. By the end of the story there is more mechanization— gas engines have replaced steam power, and new gas-powered chain saws are displacing the huge handsaws that loggers used to fell old growth fir.
The novel’s narrative takes our heroine from her arrival in the Pacific Northwest in 1904, until 1932, when the 42-year old Aino and her husband have just prevailed in a fisherman’s strike, using their cooperative to leverage the cannery owners into raising wages. By the end of our story Aino’s “direct action” syndicalism has mellowed somewhat, and she is more accepting of the cooperative socialism espoused by some of her more conservative Finnish socialists. And she seems to have recovered her family, with her Sisu still intact.
Deep River stands right beside Sometimes a Great Notion as a work infused with the history and spirit of the Pacific Northwest. In an era when foreign born workers are under attack in our country it is a powerful reminder of what our labor movement owes to all our immigrant generations.
Marcus Widenor is associate professor emeritus at the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center.