This 717 page book is a wonderful read. The story is of the Finnish immigrants (and some Swedes and Norwegians) who settled in southwestern Washington State at the beginning of the 20th century. It begins in Finland, and reading about the conditions in Russian-ruled Finland is both horrifying and illuminating.
Marlantes, who grew up in this area, does a spectacular job of writing about work. His descriptions of logging are really amazing. I thought I was standing in the woods watching the choker set the equipment and standing with the loggers as we all watched and heard the tree fall. And it isn’t just logging. People came to fish and to support both industries.
The loggers had very difficult working conditions with almost no relief or free time. The dangers were immense, and almost every accident meant a death. A core part of the novel is the description of the attempts to organize the workers to get better conditions and better pay. This is the era of the Wobblies – The IWW: International Workers of the World. Socialism was their structure, and with the accusations of being communists, they had great difficulty making headway. It was interesting to note that many of the immigrants had already been part of the IWW in Finland. The main character, Aino, is a woman of high ideals. She works tirelessly for others at the expense of her own life and relationships, and has a naïveté that is both endearing to those who know her but that gets in the way of her effectiveness.
This could be a novel just about union organizing and the Wobblies and harsh working conditions, but it is really about every aspect of how these immigrants literally carved out a life in the forest and from the river and sea. Marlantes details the struggles between workers and mill and processing owners, and nicely shows how they needed to come together for the benefit of all, and about how the cultural, national, and international circumstances effected all of it.
This was the best book I read in 2019 and I cannot recommend it more highly.