instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

LETTERS FROM WAKE ROBIN FARM

Deep River by Karl Marlantes

About a month ago I walked into my local independent bookstore, Grass Roots, with a singular mission:   I needed a book printed on actual paper.  I had been reading too many on my Kindle and one actually pointed out that reading on screens right before bed is not conducive to good sleep.

 

On the new book shelf I immediately spotted just the ticket: Deep River by Karl Marlantes. I'd read his earlier book, Matterhorn, and was impressed.  Here was his new, big fat hardback for thirty bucks. I liked the idea of the serious commitment buying this would represent, for I have noticed how easily a book on Kindle may be left unfinished, unseen. If this guy sat there and did the work to produce a seven hundred page book on a subject of interest to me, attention should be paid, and I would read it.

 

Also, the cover itself called to me.  I had probably looked at that very photo—a turn-of-the-century logger standing behind downed sections of a huge old growth fir—when I was doing research for my own novel featuring historic logging, Fire on the Wind. This was territory I had been over myself, and I would definitely be interested to see how Marlantes would handle it.

 

Well, the answer is, he handled it thoroughly, in great detail.  Excessive detail.  In his acknowledgments he thanks no less than five Grove Atlantic editors, a lot for any book, all of them female, and I had to wonder—had they given up, one after the other? How many manuscript pages had Marlantes originally turned in?  Do female editors lack the nerve to pass along to a male author a rule I thought we all understood, that it's not necessary to include every last detail of information discovered in research? I can hear Marlantes arguing he actually uncovered much more and I'm sure he did, but the point remains—you want to be finding the right amount of detail to tell the story without overwhelming it.

 

Deep River is a historical family saga spanning decades over the turn of the previous century, the story of Finnish immigrants to the Southwest region of Washington State and Astoria across the Columbia River.  I loved learning about this and thoroughly trusted the accuracy of his information, but never have I read a book I so wanted to edit. Places I think of as "false steps" in my editing of my own writing just kept jumping out at me.

 

A blatant example—a scene where Matti runs out into the night to chase down his sister, who's taken off from their cabin into the night, terribly upset:

 

"I'm going after her."  He tossed the glowing cigarette to the ground and took off running.

He ran past the old snag.  Such a waste, he thought.  Must be fifty thousand board feet in it, mostly vertical grain.  Just past Ullakko's farm, where the Tapiloa road became a trail, heading for Snappton and Reder's Camp cutoff, he caught a slight movement……

 

What can I say but No!  No, no, no! He can't be stopping to calculate board feet while his sister is in peril.  Even if this were the author's hamhanded attempt at making a commentary on the way Finnish men see the world, it still doesn't work.

 

Toward the end of the book, during the Depression, a hungry man approaches the main character, a woman named Aino. 

 

"I haven't eaten in two days, except some apples.  Those watery Yellow Transparents they grow around here.  Salmonberries, you know."

"I hear St. Mary on Grand helps out with food.  Also, the Finish and Norwegian Lutherans."

 

This breaks a rule I always apply to my own work, that people must never say things just to impart information.  That's the stuff of soap opera, and I'll bet no hungry man has ever in history stood around complaining about apple varieties.

How about this:

 

"I haven't eaten in two days, except some apples."

"Have you tried the churches?"

 

How much shorter this book could have been!

 

Another rule: Don't let your research show.

 

Marlantes breaks this on every page. I felt I could see the very newspaper clippings he'd collected.  Once a character was actually waving one. I could too easily picture his office wall plastered with the master calendar of his book. Why else would we be given so many specific dates for events that did not need dating?  We do not need to know that the solstice fell on a Tuesday a certain year so they had the party on Saturday.  Just have the damned party!  I think of so many comments my Random House editor Wendy Lamb used to write on my manuscripts: "We already know this" or "We don't need to know this." Maybe this is why people secretly enjoy YA novels—they are thoroughly, lovingly edited.

 

I absolutely do not mean to trash this book. There is so much here that is of great value.  But in the end, what it added up to for me was a book that, thanks to the author's wonderful descriptions, I could see like a movie, but could not feel.  Because he is mainly convincing when he's outside the characters, not when he's inside looking out. Yes, I could see the women, forever making the coffee, forever waiting to see if the men had come to harm at whatever misadventure they'd set out on; I could see the men doing their frightfully hard and dangerous work;  the children with their chores, living close to the land. But I was never moved, never choked up once, not even when a precious little girl is buried with flowers.  It struck me over and over: I would see what he was trying to do in a given scene, but it just wasn't quite working. Not for me.

 

Maybe he felt in trying to depict a strong, independent woman he was giving female readers a nod, but Aino never seemed like a real person.  Her interior life and thought processes didn't ring true, and she was for the most part quite unsympathetic in the decisions she made.

 

Marlantes—a veteran of the war in Vietnam—seems so much more at home in describing men drinking, smoking, and fighting, whether with fists, knives or guns, than he is in trying to plumb the depths of a woman's heart. I think men will be the best appreciators of Marlante's work in Deep River and I'm passing this book to my husband, who I think will enjoy the vivid background on logging and fishing and life in general during these early years in the Pacific Northwest.

 

I, meanwhile, will now turn to  American Dirt.  I want to see what all the fuss is about, plus, right now a book billed as an emotional page-turner sounds appealing, no matter what the controversy.   

 

 

 

1 Comments
Post a comment

Children of the River's 30th Anniversary

March of 2019 marks thirty years since my first novel, Children of the River, appeared in print. The story for me really began  ten years earlier, however, in the fall of 1979. I was the wiped out young mother of a brand new baby boy, struggling to get the hang of nursing while watching the televised images of Cambodian families pouring into the refugee camps of Thailand.  A couple of years later, Southeast Asian refugees from  Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos began showing up at our small farm looking for work during harvest.  I was fascinated by their stories of escape, and began researching and writing my novel, the story of Sundara, a seventeen year old refugee girl  who falls in love with an American boy as she's  adjusting  to life in America.

 

I took me years to write the book and 16 rejections before it was accepted for publication.  When I received my first review—a  diamond from Kirkus—I was so excited and optimistic, I jumped in the car, drove to Eugene and invested in a lovely taspestry suitcase.  I was going places!  My husband bad-vibed me for days over this extravagance, but I never regretted it as I hauled that suitcase around the country, speaking in schools and at teacher's conferences.

 

The Cambodians we befriended at Wake Robin Farm and the writing of this book altered the course of my life.  I doubt I'd have the two most precious  half-Asian grandsons if I hadn't looked out from my office window nearly four decades ago  and seen my husband  trying to communicate with Koh Sam-ou, the Cambodian woman to whom I eventually dedicated the book.  But the story of how the baby I nursed that fall became the father of these grandsons is too long and twisty-turny for a blog post.  It took a whole book, my memoir, Wedding in Yangshuo: a Memoir of Love, Language, and the Journey of a Lifetime to the Heart of China.

 

It's a lucky thing for me I came up with Children of the River when I did.  The YA world is a nasty place these days, with what I think of as the flying monkeys of PC  looking for every opportunity to  viciously pounce on victims,  then sit around parsing the apologies.  Ugh.  In the current climate, I doubt I'd have been allowed, as a white woman, to write the story of a girl with skin a shade darker than my own.   But if white kids were going to have the slightest clue what these newly arrived Asians sitting next to them in class had gone through, the story would have to come from somebody ready to write their story in English.  At that point in time.

 

From my research, I knew there was great  enmity between the Vietnamese and the Cambodians, so as I worked on the book, my main concern was that Vietnamese would be able to relate.  No problem. To my surprise, I received letters from  refugees to the US from every other region of the world indicating they did too.  The challenges of assimilation and generational conflict seemed universal.  Not only did the book find a home in 8th grade classrooms, it was also taken up by teachers of English as a Second Language.

 

Despite the  general  PC  argument against cultural appropriation and at least one comment I saw directed specifically at my book in later years, that I had "perpetuated the myth of the model minority," I stand by everything I wrote.  My research was thorough, and nothing has happened in the Cambodian refugee community in the years since publication to make me cringe and feel I'd misstepped.  The  Southeast Asians we knew, the ones on whom I based my characters,  went on to lead highly successful lives.  My main character, Sundara Sovann, dreams of becoming a doctor. Just recently I learned that one of the Cambodian girls whose mother worked on our farm, had become an award-winning surgeon. 

 

Here's the deal: it's not a myth if the success is real!

 

I wrote Children of the River in the 80's, anchoring the main timeline in 1979.  By the time the book came out in 1989, it was already becoming a historical novel. Many of the plot points are firmly anchored in the era before the common use of home computers, the  internet and smart phones.  Nevertheless, basic human emotions remain the same, and I believe Children of the River stands the test of time.  Although I've published many books after this first, clearly Children of the River is the one which will remain attached to my name when  I'm  gone.  I'm glad I can still feel proud of it.

Be the first to comment