Marlantes (What it Is Like to Go To War, 2011, etc.) moves from the jungles of Vietnam to the old-growth forests of Washington in this saga of labor and love.
It’s the late summer of 1901, and Aino Koski is learning to read and write courtesy of a schoolteacher boarding with her family in the Finnish backwoods, his textbook of choice The Communist Manifesto. Soon she’s a socialist, and so she will remain, even as her neighbors and siblings follow other beliefs and courses. Escaping the Russian occupation of her country, Aino and others in her community move across the waters to Washington state, where, despite her hope that America will prove a socialist paradise, any utopianism is worn away by the realities of endless hard work in the forests and mills: “Aksel’s hands," Marlantes writes, “work-hardened since he was a boy, still blistered from the nine-pound splitting maul and eight-foot-long bucksaw.” Aino devotes herself to labor activism while members of the Finnish immigrant community work, build families and lives, grow old, and die. Aino hardly has time to take a breath, but she still finds room for agonies of secret-charged love that stretch out over the decades, until fate finally allows some measure of happiness: “He leaned over and smothered his face in her hair,” Marlantes writes poetically of Aino’s husband-to-be, who has followed a hard path of his own, “and the pain and the disappointment poured out as he said her name over and over." The story is long and has its longueurs, but Marlantes carefully builds an epic world in the forests of Scandinavia and the Northwest, taking pains to round out each character, especially the long-suffering Aino. Drawing on his family history, he weaves themes from the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic—as he writes, the paterfamilias has named all his children after the mythological heroes and heroines in its pages—as well as real-world events in the annals of the early-20th-century labor movement.
A novel that sometimes struggles under its own weight but that’s well worth reading.