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.