Returning to Finland


April 10, 2024

Karl Marlantes’ latest novel, “Cold Victory,” is historical fiction set in post-World War II Finland, where tensions play out on a battlefield of snow and ice under the northern lights.

In the book, two men, an American and a Russian, agree to a cross-country ski race. Five hundred kilometers, just over 300 miles, spread over 10 days in the middle of an Arctic winter.

Meanwhile, their wives strike up a friendship that’s clouded by harsh realities.

‘I sort of see this world, ‘Deep River’ and now ‘Cold Victory,’ and I have in my mind, I have about five or six novels going around, and so I’ve always had a novel of this area that I wanted to write. It’s all a piece.

According to Marlantes, the book’s plot is driven by small decisions with high consequences, “goodhearted judgment calls, which we’d think would be inconsequential.”

It’s the fourth book for Marlantes, who was born in Astoria and grew up in Seaside, spending much time in and around Naselle. He went on to Yale University and continued on a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford University before serving as a Marine in Vietnam, for which he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts and 10 air medals.

His first novel, “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War,” was written from experiences in combat and was followed by a memoir, “What It Is Like to Go to War.”

Deep River-Naselle

In “Deep River,” Marlantes wrote from his grandparents’ stories and from growing up with five languages at the dinner table. That book unfolds with the lives of three Finnish siblings who immigrate to fishing and logging communities on the banks of the Columbia River.

“Cold Victory” takes place decades later, but returns with familiar characters. Arnie Koski is the son of “Deep River” lumberman Matti Koski. The year is 1946, and Arnie arrives with his wife, Louise, to be a military attaché to the United States in Helsinki. There, he reconnects with Mikhail Bobrov, a Russian he’d met years before, and the two agree to ski. To map out the fictional race, Marlantes had the help of a friend, a Finnish marine and a ski trooper. “He actually got a map, and he figured out which river valleys to go down and how long it would take,” he said.

Inspired by fact

The ski race was inspired by a story that Marlantes said had stuck with him since middle school. His mother and her cousin grew up together, both fluent in Finnish. The cousin’s husband, who Marlantes called his uncle, was an officer who was given the job of military attaché to Finland, where he was invited to take part in a skiing event organized by a military school.

“They call it a march, where they start at the Arctic Circle, and they go about 250 miles to some other town, and it’s a brutal undertaking. They do it in the middle of winter, and they do it on skis, and the British military attaché the year before, 1954, dropped out,” Marlantes said in an interview at his home in Cannon Beach. “It wasn’t a race,” he said, “but the Russian embassy was worried about what was going on. Why was this American up there with all of these cadets from Finland? So they sent their assistant military attaché.” When he got to the finish line, Marlantes said, his relative found that Finnish newspapers had told the story as a race between an American and a Russian. “The Scandinavian papers picked it up as fact, and then the wire services picked it up as fact,” Marlantes said. That story was one prompt for the book. Marlantes was also thinking about similarities he saw between conflict in Finland during the 1930s and 1940s and the Russia-Ukraine war. “It was so similar,” he said. The novel is “also about American naivete,” Marlantes said, an idea he explores through a disconnect between characters, in the ski race and through the relationship between Louise Koski and Bobrov’s wife, Natalya. “Louise is, she’s smart, she’s a go-getter, she’s an incredible person but she is so naive,” Marlantes said. “I think that Natalya is ultimately the heroine, and Louise has a big character arc. She’s not naive by the end of the story.”

Window into local history

As for the Koski family, now continued through two novels that span generations, Marlantes sees a window into local history.

He referenced the fictional Yoknapatawpha County, created by author William Faulkner as a backdrop for many of his novels and stories, as a similar idea.

“He created a whole world in that county, and so I kind of see Clatsop County and Pacific County as the same thing, and I want to leave these stories,” Marlantes said. “There’s something satisfying about how history links us.”


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