Karl Marlantes, the much-decorated war veteran and Rhodes Scholar, made his name in publishing writing about war. His first novel, Matterhorn (2010), won raves. In the New York Times Book Review, Sebastian Junger wrote, “Chapter after chapter, battle after battle, Marlantes pushes you through what may be one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam—or any war.” His next offering, What It Is Like to Go to War (2011), was a nonfiction primer on battlefield survival.
But Deep River (Atlantic Monthly, July), his latest novel, turns to the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest at the turn of the 20th century. “I kind of finished with war,” Marlantes says. “I was the war guy for about six years. Whenever anything weird happened in Afghanistan, I got six radio interviews. I wrote those books for personal reasons—I was a Marine in Vietnam, and I worked out a lot of stuff.”
Inspired by his Finnish heritage, his latest book focuses on three teenage siblings who immigrate to the U.S. from Finland in the early 1900s: a woman who channels the radical socialist ideals fomented in her homeland into becoming a labor organizer in the American logging and sawmill industries, and her two brothers, who become a farmer/blacksmith and a logger. “I wanted to memorialize that generation of immigrants that came in the early 20th century—many of whom I knew, and now they’re gone.”
In his research into the logging trade, the author was struck by the heroism and hard work embodied by those workers. “These guys were 5 feet, 9 inches tall, cutting down trees by hand that sometimes took two days to cut down—just with handsaws,” Marlantes says. “They burned 16,000 calories a day logging. You had this magnificent bravery, but the result was that in a matter of 100 years, old-growth forests were gone. I remember talking to my older relatives—they said they believed they weren’t going to be able to cut the forest faster than it grew, but somebody in Germany invented the chainsaw, and that was the end of it.”
In his research, Marlantes found similarities in how immigration was viewed back in the early1900s and how Americans think about it today. “The absolute fear of foreigners, of the ‘other,’ hasn’t changed. We think they’re going to change the way that our culture is, or the way our society is, or they’re going to take our jobs. I look at it from the viewpoint of the immigrant, and quite frankly, immigrants aren’t trying to destroy anything; they’re just trying to get a good job. It’s very simple.”
Marlantes hopes readers will look at their world differently after reading his book. “I’d like readers to come away with the sense of awe at nature and the size of human hearts, the feeling of the grandeur and at the same time, the darkness—that the whole picture is very wonderful and terrifying at the same time. I want people to come away feeling that somehow they’re connected.”
Today, 11–11:30 a.m. Karl Marlantes will be signing ARCs at Table 15.