The author of What It Is Like to Go to War returns with a family saga about Finnish immigrants who settle and tame the Pacific Northwest, set against early labor movements, World War I, and the upheaval of early 20th century America.
The characters in Deep River are grounded in work, and Mr. Marlantes conveys the elements, arcana and dangerous romance of logging superbly. His descriptions of logging itself—the ingenious mechanics of taking down trees and the skill of experienced loggers—are wonderfully detailed, dramatic and exhilarating ... Mr. Marlantes’s graphic portrayals of the devastation that indiscriminate logging brought to old-growth forests, the pitiless exploitation of loggers who labored from dawn to dusk, and the ghastly injuries they suffered are vivid and sickening. On the other hand, an overall sense of the country’s vigorous, can-do attitude in the first decades of the 20th century is palpable ... Mighty physical, social and economic forces operate the plot of this novel, buffeting its characters, raising them up, flinging them down, twisting their fates together. Deep River is a big American novel, akin to Annie Proulx’s Barkskins and, to an extent, Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion.
...in 2010 he delivered Matterhorn a heaving 600-page epic about the Vietnam War that was largely about the plodding, crushing effort of a company of Marines to reclaim control of a mountaintop base ... There’s something similarly, stubbornly offbeat about Marlantes’ second novel, Deep River ... Sweeping assimilation novels, especially about white ethnic groups, have been out of fashion for years ... Still, Marlantes’s idiosyncratic approach is to his credit: Deep River is an engrossing and commanding historical epic about one immigrant family’s shifting fortunes. And though its story is a century old, this time it speaks more directly to America’s current predicament ... Deep River earns its scope in part because it reveals the frustratingly incremental effort to improve conditions — every demand, from straw for bedding to eight-hour workdays, becomes a pitched battle ... Deep River is a feat of lavish storytelling; Marlantes ably balances details about the logging industry and the black markets its cheapskate owners help foster, from brothels to bootlegging. But, as in Matterhorn, Marlantes’s big-picture storytelling can come at the expense of its line-by-line prose ... Deep River could use some better sentences. But we could also use more spirited novels like Deep River.
Whether describing the logging or commercial fishing industries, Marlantes shows an extraordinary knowledge of his subjects, and in the scenes dedicated to these hardscrabble endeavors, the story hums with energy ... The implicit tensions feel timeless and still relevant ... the urgency of his voice lifts off the page. The question for this reader is not whether the experience of the Koski family transcends time — certainly it does—but whether the novel needs all its bulk to do so. At times the story feels redundant ... If Deep River is meant to serve as a new American epic, it overreaches. But as a portrait of a complicated American era, and one family’s mighty struggle against it, the novel is both fascinating and fierce. And well worth the hours it asks of its reader.