“For the history lesson alone, Cold Victory is memorable.”
As a lure to contemplate Finland’s peculiar role during World War II, Karl Marlantes’ Cold Victory dangles a shiny hook.
The big-picture facts are these:
Finland initially defended itself from an attack by the Soviet Union. Next, it attacked the Soviets alongside Nazi Germany. Finally, it fought alongside the Allies against the Nazis.
Marlantes begins Cold Victory—a novel that combines diplomacy, spying, and an outdoor adventure—18 months after Germany’s surrender. The book starts in late 1946, but the bulk of the story takes place during the first six weeks of 1947, when Finland is beginning to rejoin the still-shaky world stage.
The novel is front-loaded with backstory about the country’s mercurial role as we follow Arnie and Louise Koski, arriving on a ferry from Stockholm. The ferry follows an icebreaker into the harbor at Turku—all of Cold Victory takes place during the long dark night of winter.
Arnie Koski is the new military attaché to the American legation in Helsinki. Louise is part of the diplomatic package. “Every woman knew that all high-level diplomatic jobs took two people—and this was their first one. His end was gathering military intelligence. Her end was providing the social lubricant and connections that made his job easier.”
Louise is burdened by two previous miscarriages and a feeling of inferiority. All the other diplomatic wives went to East Coast colleges and are familiar with life in Europe. Louise attended the University of Oklahoma and this is her first trip east of the Mississippi River. She’s attended the State Department’s briefings on interpersonal protocols, but found them lacking. The “single brief lecture on what was actually happening in Finland, what American wanted—what the Soviet Union and Finland wanted—had been cursory. To her disappointment, she found that State was no different than the army. There was an unspoken assumption that the wives wouldn’t be interested, so they were spared the details. Their husbands would fill them in if they really wanted to know.”
Louise grows interested. As the naïve one, she becomes the reader’s wide-eyed narrator to this distant, unfamiliar land. Cold Victory trades points of view as Arnie and Louise work their way into government circles, particularly at the Soviet Envoy’s Residence on New Year’s Eve. While they are wary of listening devices and careful not to say the wrong thing to the wrong person, friendships take shape.
Louise develops a “closeness” with Natalya Bobrova, her Russian counterpart and wife to Mikhail. It is not the first time, we soon learn, that Mikhail and Arnie have encountered each other. The last time, in fact, had been in uniform. Natalya informs Louise and Arnie that Mikhail had fought, as a ski trooper, against both the Finnish and German fascists.
Mikhail lets slip during a drunken chat that he considers the American Tenth Mountain Division “the second best ski troops in the world” and soon there is honor at stake. “The two of them stood very close together—in the Russian way, not the American—swaying slightly from the alcohol. Neither spoke. The challenge had been issued, but neither knew how to deal with it.”
It doesn’t take the pair long to establish a way to devise a test. The pair will compete in a secret ski race over 500 kilometers through the vast, empty fields and forests of Finland. Man versus man. Ski trooper versus ski trooper. Country versus country. In winter. And, meanwhile, in the second major driving force in the story, Louise and Nataly work together to raise money for an orphanage that is jointly run by the Soviets and the Americans. As word about the ski race leaks out, it’s all about public perception and how the race results could impact the larger geopolitical messaging—and Louise is left with a perilous public relations challenge and big choices to make.
Cold Victory takes us to an unusual setting and gives us a solid lesson in the tumultuous times within a small country that most Americans are probably no likely to conjure when they contemplate World War II. For the history lesson alone, Cold Victory is memorable. Louise’s journey from naïve wife to stubborn activist is well drawn. The action scenes are tense. The political stakes, thanks to Marlantes’ studious research and wide-ranging empathy for all involved, are clear. The novel takes its time building the political world before the plot really straps on its skis, but it’s clear Marlantes’ goal was not to get our hearts pounding but to shine a light on an overlooked nook of history.