The name Deep River conjures thoughts of complex mysteries drifting in eddies far below the water’s surface like monstrous old sturgeon. It makes an ideal title for a novel about a feisty contingent of Lower Columbia immigrants a century and more ago — particularly the Finns — notorious for keeping a steely grip on secrets.
Next Tuesday, Jan. 21, upstairs at the Liberty Theater in Astoria, author Karl Marlantes will talk about and answer questions concerning a book many years in the making: “Deep River.” It promises to be among the most popular Columbia Forum events in recent years. Not only is his book richly woven with local connections, but the author himself is from Seaside.
Although the novel tinkers with geography to some extent, past and present residents of Western Wahkiakum County will recognize many similarities with the actual Deep River, so named because it was deep enough to permit riverboat navigation several miles upstream to the village of the same name. The illustrious 97-ton Astoria-built steamer General Washington plied the route between Deep River, Knappton and Astoria in the years when remote villages were bound together by water rather than highways.
For five years in the 1990s I lived in Pigeon Bluff, a sort of suburb of two of these near-ghost towns — Cottardi and Altoona. Quite in contrast with what some might experience as dreary isolation, even now these villages are in fact light and airy, opening out onto the pearly glow of the Columbia River estuary. Fine and friendly people line the great river’s lively little tributaries, which are fed by the many feet of pure rain that fall on the Willapa Hills.
Transportation required infinitely more patience back around a century ago when Finn-American midwife Aino made her way to patients and conducted other errands via the General Washington — or on foot, as on the day she is kicked out of Altoona for attempted labor organizing. Anyone who gets to know Aino in the pages of “Deep River” will surely hope she is brought to life in a movie. A quick online casting search suggests perhaps Krista Kosonen to play her.
Although we who live around the Columbia estuary inevitably know Finns of every political persuasion — and get used to random extra vowels and consonants in surnames — it is the radical factions of the first decades of the 20th century who get most attention from historians and Marlantes. Of course one person’s “radical” is another’s sensible supporter of basic workers’ rights. Although I associate the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, much more with Centralia, “Deep River” paints a picture of extremely agitated times in Astoria and other nearby places.
“If there is injustice in any industry, everyone goes on strike. Everywhere. We don’t wait for Marxist bullshit about the workers’ paradise. We don’t wait for the Republicans or the Democrats. They’re both financed by capitalists,” an activist tells the excited Aino.
The Astorian Suomalainen Sosialisti Klubi, or Finnish Socialist Club, is a focal point in fiction, as it was in real life. There were once enough Finnish lefties to merit an entire history, “Finnish Radicals in Astoria, Oregon 1904-1940,” by Paul George Hummasti. Finns of every viewpoint were among the most visible of our region’s immigrant populations, which also included Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, English, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Yugoslavians and others. With a firm dedication to their own cultural heritage and language, the Finns have been among the most consistently obvious of all. As the Astorian’s Steve Forrester wrote several years ago, between 1891 and 1951, 10 Finnish language newspapers were published in Astoria.
Local historian Liisa Penner told Forrester that the socialist strain of Finnish politics remained a hot-button topic for generations. After publishing the 1995 series “The Finnish Socialists of Clatsop County” Penner had a confrontational encounter. “A woman said to me: ‘I had two people [in my family] mentioned. I don’t want the family name listed.’ This was in 1995, and the reference was to her family in 1914.”
Setting such long-simmering controversies aside, people with Finnish ancestry remain key ingredients in local culture and color. Finnish voices — though I couldn’t imagine what they were — bubbled along with the Naselle River when I went out to report on the smelt run in 1991. Finn is an ancient linguistic artifact, and there was something in those inexplicable syllables that echoed the vast woodlands and self-sufficient farms of far northern Europe.
It was a thrill a few years ago when a genetic test suggested I have a tiny sliver of Finnish ancestry myself — a trace of some centuries-old passion among the hardy families of the northwestern corner of the Old World. It makes me feel like brewing potions, herding reindeer, dipping smelt and indulging in overheated political arguments.