DEEP RIVER by Karl Marlantes

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In DEEP RIVER, author Karl Marlantes moves on from his description of a company of Marines in Vietnam who tried to recapture a mountain top base that formed the basis of his award-winning book, MATTERHORN and his unique description of combat in his memoir, WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR.  In his latest effort he takes on a different type of warfare centering around the battle between labor and capitalists in the Pacific northwest at the turn of the 20th century through 1932.  Focusing on a Finnish immigrant family, the Koskis, Marlantes delves into the problems faced by immigrants as they arrived in Oregon and southern Washington, not far from the Columbia River as they struggled for survival as they are swallowed up by the lumber industry.  The result is a family epic that spans an important segment of American history as well as a fascinating read that you will look forward to each time you pick up the book.

Marlantes employs a literary epic approach to convey his story beginning with the difficulties that the Finnish people faced under Czarist rule in the 1890s.  As revolution began to permeate Finnish villages the Koski family found themselves caught up in the whirlwind that surrounded the oppressive rule of the Romanovs and attempts by revolutionaries to free their country and establish some sort of Socialist utopia.  Events resulted in the breakup of the Koski family as Taipo, the father is arrested and later dies in captivity, and the children Ilmari, Aino, and Matti immigrate to America.  Each chooses their own path, Ilmari leaves first and takes advantage of the 1862 Homestead Act in Knappton, Washington; Aino, who turned to socialism and organizing opposition to the Czarist regime is arrested, tortured, and raped as she is implicated in a plot to assassinate a Czarist bureaucrat and winds up in the same area  working in a logging camp near her brother; and the youngest of the three, Matti has visions of creating his own logging business after being exposed to the hard labor of the northwest forests.  The Koski family is not the only one fractured by the Czarist regime as the Langstrom brothers are torn from each other; Gunnar a socialist revolutionary facing arrest and his brother Askel, who fears the Okhrana, the Czarist secret police escapes to Sweden and later to America.

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(Lumber industry in Pacific Northwest)

Marlantes develops many important characters to go along with the Koski siblings, including historical ones like the International Workers of the World (IWW) organizer and rabble rouser, Joe Hill and many others.  Each character is introduced in the context of the Koski family and how they fit into the growing conflict between labor and lumber management.  Aino is haunted by the love she left behind and her increasing radicalization throughout the book that leads her to organizing loggers for the IWW that results in splitting her family.  Ilmari is a deeply religious man who organizes a congregation for the church he builds, marries and focuses on family life.  Matti and Aksel will come together to try and take advantage of the increasing demand for lumber due to World War I.  The trials and tribulations of each gather force and capture the imagination of the reader throughout the over 700-page story.

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Marlantes does a superb job explaining how the lumber industry functioned in the early 20th century and how cruel and dangerous it was for the loggers many of which were Finnish and Swedish immigrants.  Wages were low, living conditions appalling as labor exploitation by lumber barons led to strikes and violence created by the IWW as each demand; straw to sleep on or an eight-hour day created greater angst on the part of both sides.  Marlantes develops the tension in the narrative very carefully as he introduces the different characters and their families in the context of historical events.  The crisis for labor and the IWW is laid out and its impact is presented through strikes in Nordland and other areas and the role of government is explored.  Congress first gave the land to the Northern Pacific Railroad to build a transportation network in a rather corrupt bargain.  The railroad would sell the excess land for profit to lumber barons, who employed soldiers and police to break up any attempt at strikes or unionization.  As law enforcement wished to stifle dissent in the name of national security, it led to the Espionage Act of 1917,  which has a certain resonance to arguments made today by certain elements in Washington, DC.  Other important historical events are woven into the story including the Spanish flu, the Palmer Raids, and the onset and effect of the Depression.

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(The wood economy in the Pacific Northwest)

Marlantes uses his family epic to convey a microcosm of American labor history focusing on lumber capitalists, loggers, the role of the federal government, the Red Scare that followed World War I, and the impact of the Stock Market crash of 1929.  His description of the plight of loggers as they try to better themselves and for some, like the Koskis and Aksel who try to make it on their own, the forces that try and keep them under control, and the wish of loggers and later fishermen to be successful capitalists is heart rendering and very complicated.

The authors grasp of Finnish culture and traditions is exemplary and adds a great deal to the story line.  He offers his own families past and his childhood memories as a motivation for pursuing his chronicle of the Koski family .  Marlantes has offered the reader a gift and having completed it I thank him greatly.

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(Columbia River)

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CEMETERY ROAD by Greg Iles

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(Bienville, MS)

Bienville, Mississippi is the site of Greg Iles latest novel.  Fresh off the success of his NATCHEZ BURNING trilogy, Iles’ latest effort CEMETERY ROAD describes a town of about 36,000 people which is about to further its recovery from the economic downturn in the early 1990s and the 2008 collapse as it appears a Chinese conglomerate is about to build a paper mill in town.  Azure Dragon Paper Company will provide numerous jobs, many high paying, in addition to a new interstate highway that will run from El Paso, Texas to Augusta, Georgia that will pass over a new Bienville bridge.  All seems to be positive until one individual, an archeologist named Buck Ferris is murdered.  It seems that Ferris has found evidence of an ancient Indian civilization at the site of the new factory complex and if his discoveries pan out then the area could be declared a UNESCO historical preserve thereby threatening Bienville’s economic future.

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When one begins a Greg Iles’ novel there are certain expectations.  In his latest effort they are all met.  An intense plot that delves into the characters past history, a crime that is hidden amongst many layers, the Mississippi landscape that encompasses the 1960s to the present, and a flawed protagonist, this case, Marshall McEwan, a newsman and commentator from Washington who returns home to Bienville.  McEwan is a brilliant reporter who carries a great deal of personal baggage ranging from guilt of his brother Adam’s drowning when he was fourteen, the death of his own son, also named Adam at two years old in a swimming pool, divorce, numerous affairs, and a dying father who still blames him for the death of his eldest son.  McEwan returns home to try and ease his mother’s burden with the approaching death of her husband, and possibly bringing to resolution the void in his relationship with his father.

McEwan takes over his father’s newspaper the Bienville Watchman and has written an article that the town’s elite, known as the Poker Club, find extremely uncomfortable as it explores Ferris’ work and findings and what it might signify.  Once Ferris, who helped McEwan deal with his brother’s death and became his surrogate father when his own father shut him out is murdered Iles’ begins to unpack a powerful plot that feeds numerous tributaries.

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(Greg Iles, author)

Ile’s is an expert at blending past relationships and the history of his characters with contemporary events. Ile’s talent also extends to his character development and how individuals interact as the story unfolds.  The author has created a number of interesting personages as events build upon each other.  The Matheson family, the powerful timber baron patriarch Max, and his son Paul who had saved McEwan’s life while both were in Iraq, who now suffers from PTSD.  Jet Matheson, Paul’s wife also happens to be McEwan’s lover, a rekindling of a relationship they began as teenagers.  Denny Allman, a fourteen-year-old technology “genius” who operates his own drone and has latched on to McEwan as a surrogate father when his own has abandoned him and his mother.  Nadine Sullivan, bookstore owner, lawyer, and longtime friend of McEwan’s. Byron Ellis, the Tenisaw County Coroner.   Members of the towns ruling cabal called the Poker Club, Tommy Russo, Casino owner; Wyatt Cash, Prime Shot Camping Gear owner; Claude Buckman founder of Bienville Sothern Bank; Blake Donnelly, oil baron; Arthur Pane, former county attorney; and Avery Sumner, former circuit judge and current US Senator.  This group is described as a “predatory banker, an old-time oil tycoon, a newly minted US senator, an entrepreneur with ties to the US military, and a sleazy lawyer,” all very accurate descriptions.

It seems that a number of characters face moral and ethical dilemmas as the story unfolds.  The situation revolves around the future of Bienville.  How should Jet Matheson divorce her husband and still keep custody of her son as she is up against the power of her father-in-law?  What should Matthew McEwan publish concerning the murder of Buck Ferris and the dirt surrounding members of the Poker Club?  After the murder or possible suicide of the spouse of a Poker Club member, how should the accused be defended in court and what are the ramifications of the case for the town?  How does one keep a family together when dark secrets rip it a part?  Lastly, how does one deal with corporate interest versus the needs of the local population?

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There is an important contemporary aspect to Iles’ approach.  He frames his dialogue well and uses it to inform the reader of important opinions that he holds.  His digression dealing with the state of the newspaper and media industry is important as he chronicles its decline as it now seems to only resort to entertainment and certain types of news anchors.  Further, he repeatedly skewers the Trump administration for its moral and ethical decay and voices his concern for the future because of the damage emanating from Washington.

Iles develops all of these concerns very carefully as he builds the tension as the diverse interests of his characters come into conflict.  The storyline will keep the reader riveted to their seats as they press on, and the final resolution of the issues raised will come as a surprise.  In reading Iles’ work from his NATCHEZ BURNING trilogy and now with CEMETERY ROAD I am reminded of the work of Pat Conroy.  In this new book Iles has delivered an absorbing novel that displays the grief, betrayal and corruption of a small southern town, a story that I highly recommend.

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