Deep River: A Novel by Karl Marlantes

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Anger at the senseless cruelty of it all kept her awake at night.

Escaping Russian rule, siblings Ilmari, Matti, and Aino immigrate to America joining other Finns in the hopes that they will find the perfect place to thrive. Ilmari is the first to leave Finland, to avoid being drafted in the Russian army he flees his homeland. In America, Ilmari is a devout man who builds a farm of his own and a blacksmith shop before his brother Matti follows. Helping his brother for a time with the running of things, he must make a life for himself. By Christmas finding work with the sole options being fishing or logging, he choses logging. Felling trees, a job that can crush a man, easy. With no idea how, he swears to himself he will one day have his own company! Last is Aino, seventeen- years old and desperate for work. Already having suffered for her revolutionary beliefs back in Finland, the fire burns just as bright now in America. She isn’t happy to settle as some man’s wife and men want a woman to care for their families not a maid. Marriage is still against everything she believes in, and if she ever marries, she has to feel love, hers is a heart that cannot in good conscience settle. There are more important things to her future, and her socialist desires. Life isn’t easier in America, everything is not golden nor as ‘free’ as she imagined. Instead, they meet with backbreaking, deadly work logging in the forrest of Washington, where workers are nothing better than slaves making money for others (capitalism). A staunch socialist, Aino is well read, and desperate to fight for laborers rights often at the risk of her very life. Conflicted by the expectations of women of the times (have a family, settle down) she’d rather take part in activism, even when love comes calling. Is it better to settle down, safer? She is fed up being a live in servant, did enough of that before, and marriage is much the same too. She works for a time cooking for hundreds of men at a logging camp, Reder Logging. It comes to be the hardest work she has ever known. The reality is often disheartening, even later when she is a wife living in cheap lopsided quarters, it isn’t enough to please her. She must occupy herself with a life full of purpose, helping others. Escaping the unrest of their own country only to land in a place where one must continue to fight for human dignity, America isn’t turning out to be the dream Aino envisioned. Women should know their place, and certainly not be slipping off for meetings threatened by raids! A man who works his fingers to the bone relies on his good wife waiting with a meal, the home clean and comfortable. She’s a feminist, a fighter, a woman who won’t be caged but I admit, she could come off as self-righteous and selfish at times too. Could motherhood settle her?

The men face loggers being killed, the equipment fails, people make mistakes that costs lives and no one is looking out for their safety. It matters to Aino. It is for ‘the common good’ and if she is called a communist, so be it, they must still fight! The powers that be don’t want strikes and of course will threaten those who dare strike with brute force. Naturally she finds herself jailed. The Koski  siblings will  rage against “slave wages, slave hours, and slave working conditions” and find their future as pioneers logging the vast forest of Washington. They will all search for their identity as they push for early labor rights or material success. From logging camps to fishing for salmon, strikes, Spanish flu, co-ops, the first cars, and captialism. Love and affairs, jail, unrest, starting families, and businesses in the new American dream. There is a lot happening in this novel that because of the historical scope it covers, the stories can sometimes leave the reader meandering. It is a rich, well researched historical fiction about the early days for Finish immigrants in the forrest and mills of Washington. More importantly it is a grim look at the fight for labors rights.

Publication Date: July 2, 2019

Grove Atlantic

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Valerie: A Novel by Sara Stridsberg, Translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner

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A heart full of black flies. The loneliness of a desert. Landscape of stones. Cowboys. Wild mustangs. An alphabet of bad experiences.

Everything reaches it’s end, certainly Valerie Solanas reached her’s in a sad hotel room “last stop for dying whores and junkies”, and with this creative novel Sara Stridsberg brings her back to life, in the only way writers can, through exploring her past and freely using creative imagination. Valerie Jean Solanas, feminist and author of  The SCUM Manifesto shot Andy Warhol. Yes, that Valerie!  Her story isn’t focused on Warhol, nor should it be. Instead, we are taking a trip into the underbelly of her existence. The early sexual molestation by her father, her years as a student of science working in a lab with animals, her keen intelligence battling her declining mental states, the prostitution, the institutions, arrest, her lonely death from pneumonia… One can imagine why she had a deep hatred for men, a defiled child grown into a woman with no reason to have faith in man.  What was sex to her but survival, just like conversation, she could escape her body, go to a place where no one could touch her, she learned that at her father’s hands. A member of one in her club of hate, just like when she was little.

She didn’t succeed in her assassination attempt on Andy Warhol, but she hit her mark on that June day in 1968, his lungs, esophagus, spleen, liver and stomach were damaged and he never fully recovered despite living until his death from a heart attack in 1987 due to complications following gallbladder surgery. She wanted Warhol to produce a play, he passed it up- too outlandishly vulgar for him… he would pay for that brutal rejection! These are facts, but  it would do good to research Valerie if you want more than fiction, her life wasn’t a pretty existence, and I couldn’t help but wonder who I would be in her shoes. I remember reading about her giving birth to a child but I digress… this novel is all over the place and I don’t think it’s due to the translator, I feel it is meant to make the reader feel they are on shaky ground. There seemed to be very little stability in her life, nor did she ever appear to get the chance to be a little girl. If her prostitution is distasteful, if she was too much, too vulgar, filled with rage, who else can you blame but her parents?

The author keeps saying ‘and if you did not have to die’, but she did and along with the years of decay, so too died her chance to be a writer, a scientist and worse was the end of  her belief in herself. Maybe it’s not that she, like any of us, had to die, but so alone, in the ‘crap hotel’. What of her mother, Dorothy? Dorothy, Dorothy, are you there? Were you ever? There always needed to be a ‘fella’ didn’t there? Why didn’t you protect your daughter? It seems not even boarding schools, college was far enough away to change her fate. Her genius couldn’t save her, in fact, it likely fed the fury, for sometimes clarity is blinding.

She believed the world, due to men, had no place for a woman. She was a star that Warhol didn’t make, but who would forever be tied to him. Even years later she certainly didn’t seem to be sorry for her crime. He was simply a target all her years of pain honed in on. The novel is written almost like a dream, a terrible dream you can’t shake off. Soiled memories you want to deny, paste into a scrapbook and burn to ash, as good as forgetting. The shadow of death seems to be the only friend, at the end, in her corner. Death, an ever present  companion, showing itself in the blood she coughs up into her hand. The years reach further back one moment, Dorothy and Valerie in the desert, caught up in her mother’s disastrous love affairs, ‘known for her bad taste and bad judgement’, and then bam, we’re in 1988 again, in a sad hotel. It’s too late, Valerie is doomed, you knew this from the first pages. So many years spent as one of the drowning under psychiatric care, just one of many on the fringes of society, one of the forgotten… we cannot change the ending. Catch a whiff of complete ruin as it runs through the pages.

Why couldn’t she have taken her degree, let her genius shine? Can dissecting the dead, the trajectory of their lives provide us with anything concrete when it’s all just fiction? Maybe. Maybe it’s as close as you can get sometimes. How can you not feel a bit unhinged after reading Valerie? Not all readers enjoy non-linear stories, for me this scattered way of writing fits Valerie’s disordered mind and life. I keep picking my brain wondering how different the outcome would be today, better or worse?  Raw, painful, disturbing!

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Farrar, Straus and Giroux