"Snow Falling on Cedars"
by David Guterson
Its setting the fictitious San Piedro Island (one of the San Juan Islands between
Victoria, Canada, and ),
“Snow Falling on Cedars” begins in 1954 with the start of the murder trial of
Kabuo Miyamoto, a Japanese-American gill-net fisherman accused of killing Carl
Heine, another gill-net fisherman, at sea at night in dense fog. The novel goes repeatedly back in time as
early as the mid-1930s to present back-stories of its main characters. Readers are given ample cause to identify with
them. Ultimately, taking sides during
the course of the trial, the reader hopes that justice, not human fear and
prejudice, will prevail. Bellingham, Washington
The author, David Guterson, is outstanding in portraying character. He is meticulous in revealing physical habits and appearance and psychological characteristics. He exceeds most writers in his ability to humanize his characters.
This is true even of minor characters. I appreciated greatly such diligence. The county coroner, Horace Whaley, who appears in only one chapter, is a good example.
Horace was by inclination a private man, nearing fifty now, with a sprawling port-wine stain on the left side of his forehead that he often fingered unconsciously. In appearance he was tidy and meticulous, storklike and slender … and wore his starched trousers high on his narrow waist and his scant hair slicked from right to left with pomade. Horace Whaley’s eyes bulged—his thyroid gland was overactive—and swam, too, behind his spectacles. Something attenuated, a nervous caution, suggested itself in all his movements.
Horace had served as a medical officer for twenty months in the Pacific theater and had suffered in that period from sleep deprivation and from a generalized and perpetual tropical malaise that had rendered him, in his own mind, ineffective, Wounded men in his care had died, they died while in his sleepless daze Horace was responsible for them, In his head these men and their bloody wounds mingled into one recurring dream.
Four characters are especially important in this story.
Ishmael Chambers, owner and editor of the local newspaper, has more than a professional interest in the outcome of the trial. He and the defendant’s wife, Hatsue (Imada) Miyamoto, grew up in close proximity of each other. They were classmates. During the summer they worked near each other picking strawberries. They spent time together looking for sand crabs. Childhood friends, they became more than friends after puberty. Ishmael fell deeply in love with her. Despite the cultural training she had received that forbad having a romantic relationship with any male not Japanese, she returned his affection. Her sense of guilt in deceiving her mother and a growing sense that committing herself to him was wrong precedes the removal of all Japanese-Americans on the island to the Japanese internment camp Manzanar in early 1942. From the
writes Ishmael that their relationship has ended. Ishamel takes the rejection hard. He is wounded at camp Hatsue Okinawa;
his left arm is amputated. After the war
he succeeds his father as owner and editor of the town newspaper. Hatsue has married Kabuo Miyamoto and is the
mother of children.
… the anger about her had finished gradually bleeding out of him and had slowly dried up and blown away. Nothing had replaced it, either. … She slept in the same bed every night with Kabuo Miyamoto. He had taught himself to forget as best he could. The only thing left was a vague sense of waiting for Hatsue—a fantasy—to return to him. How, exactly, this might be achieved he could not begin to imagine, but he could not keep himself from feeling that he was waiting and that these years were only an interim between other years he had passed and would pass again with Hatsue.
Kabuo Miyamoto is the great grandson of a samurai. His father began training him to use the bokken, a wooden sword, before he was ten. He became very proficient in stick-fighting. At Manzanar he builds furniture for the Imada family. He and Hatsue become acquainted. Prior to Kabuo’s enlistment in the army to fight in
, they marry. It is against Hatsue’s wishes. She is not able to dissuade him. His stated reason for enlisting is that he
must prove himself to be a loyal American.
His unstated reason is that he has inherited his great grandfather’s
desire to engage in battle. Italy
Before the war, Kabuo’s family worked on Carl Heine’s father’s strawberry acreages. The father, unlike most of the white population on San Piedro Island, is liberal-minded. He hadsa high regard for the Miyamoto family. When Kabuo’s father asks Carl Sr. if he would sell him seven acres of strawberry land, to be paid in installments, the senior Heine agrees. His wife, Etta, a very bigoted woman, opposes. The installments would continue until Kabuo reaches the age of eighteen, when title to the purchased land would be transferred to him. State law forbad people born in
to own property. They could not become
American citizens. Born in American, however,
Kabuo would become eligible to own property upon his eighteenth birthday. Two installments remain to be paid when all
the Japanese families on the island are removed to Manzanar. Over his wife’s objections, Carl Sr. agrees
to be flexible about the delay of the final payments. During the war he dies. Etta sells all of Carl’s property, including
the seven acres. She returns what
Kabuo’s father has paid but pockets the property’s equity. After Kabuo returns from war, he is not able
to purchase the desired acreage from the new owner. In September 1954, the owner, now ill, gives
notice that he wishes to sell his land.
Carl Jr., who wants to be a strawberry farmer, not continue to fish, makes
an agreement to buy the property hours before Kabuo approaches the owner. Japan
The county sheriff, Art Moran, recalls that Carl had served as a gunner on the U.S.S. Canton, which went down during the invasion of
Okinawa. He’d survived the war—other island boys
hadn’t—and come home to a gill-netter’s life.
… He weighed two hundred and thirty-five pounds, much of it carried in
his chest and shoulders. … He worked
alone. He was courteous but not
friendly. … Carl Heine was a good
man. He was silent, yes, and grave like
his mother, but the war had a part in that, Art realized. Carl rarely laughed, but he did not seem, to
Art’s way of thinking, unhappy or dissatisfied.
When his mother, Etta, complains that Kabuo -- who had been a
childhood friend and who had loaned Carl a bamboo fishing pole which Etta had
demanded be returned – is staring at her evilly, Carl promises to keep an eye
on Kabuo. It is common knowledge in the
community that Kabuo is angry for having been thwarted owning the seven acre
When Carl is found drowned in his gill net, suspicion is focused directly on Kabuo. Art Moran’s investigation adds credence to that suspicion. Kabuo is charged with first degree murder.
At this juncture in the novel my main purpose in continuing to read was to discover whether Kabuo was actually guilty and, guilty or not, whether the town’s prejudice toward its Japanese ancestry neighbors would deliver a guilty verdict. The author skillfully sustained my doubt until the last chapter.
I was impressed with the author’s knowledge of location, gill-net fishing, autopsy of corpses, trial procedures, Japanese culture, every subject that is germane to the story. I was as impressed with the author’s subjective narrative skills as I was his ability to characterize. Here is what he wrote after Hatsue had told Ishmael (prior to she and her family being sent to Manzanar) that their relationship had ended.
When she finally did leave it was well past dusk, and she walked out of the woods and into the open with the intention of not looking back again. But after ten steps she did so despite herself—it was too hard not to turn around. It was in her to say good-bye forever and tell him she would never see him again, to explain to him that she’d chosen to part because in his arms she felt unwhole. But she didn’t say it, that they had been too young, that they had not seen clearly, that they had allowed the forest and the beach to sweep them up, that all of it had been delusion all along, that she had not been who she was. Instead, unblinking, she looked at him, unable to hurt him in the way that was demanded and in some undefined way still loving what he was, his kindness, his seriousness, the goodness in his heart. He stood there, Ishmael, looking at her desperately, and that was the way she would remember him. Twelve years later she would still see him this way, standing at the edge of the strawberry fields beneath the cover of the silent cedars, a handsome boy with one arm outstretched, beckoning her to come back.
My only criticism of the book is that I did not feel Ishmael was an entirely believable character. Yes, his feelings of love for Hatsue and his pain and anger about losing her seemed authentic. Not to have moved on but, instead, to have lived for twelve years in an emotional vacuum up to the beginning of the trial seemed excessive. In the same vein his behavior during the trial seemed contrived.
This is not a novel that can be read cover to cover easily. Savor the content. Enjoy the depth of characterization. Appreciate the author’s craft. Contemplate the theme: unfairness pervades life. Accident rules “every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.” There is much to appreciate.