Snow Falling On Cedars – David Guterson
San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound, is a place so isolated that no one who lives there can afford to make enemies. But in 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder. In the course of the ensuing trial, it becomes clear that what is at stake is more than a man's guilt. For on San Piedro, memory grows as thickly as cedar trees and the fields of ripe strawberries—memories of a charmed love affair between a white boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo's wife; memories of land desired, paid for, and lost. Above all, San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched.
Review: Well, this is a gorgeous book. It took me forever to read because it’s pretty dense, but I loved it. It’s part historical fiction, part family saga, part murder mystery, and part courtroom drama. I haven’t read a book like that before.
The story centers on the residents of an island near the coast of Washington State. It’s 1954. A fisherman is found dead on his boat, and the police suspect murder. They quickly arrest Kabuo, the son of Japanese immigrants and a survivor of the Japanese internment camps. The trial brings out the island residents’ deep-seated prejudices that go back to the days of WWII.
“The snowfall obliterated the borders between the fields and made Kabuo Miyamoto's long-cherished seven acres indistinguishable from the land that surrounded them. All human claims to the landscape were superseded, made null and void by the snow. The world was one world, and the notion that a man might kill another over some small patch of it did not make sense.” – Snow Falling on Cedars
If you’re the type of person who requires a book to have a plot, then this isn’t a book for you. If you’re the type of person who likes character-driven, vivid, atmospheric stories, then you need to read this immediately. If you’re a writer, then this book is required reading. Go get a copy now. I wish all writers would describe setting like David Guterson does. The setting is an integral part of the story. I’ve never been to San Piedro Island, but I feel like I can picture every bit of it. The characters are a product of their environment. They’re fishers and farmers, and they’re so attached to the land that they may be willing to commit murder to get their piece of it.
This novel has a unique structure that gives it tension, despite not having a plot. In the 1954 part of the story, we’re watching the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, who has been accused of murder. As the witnesses testify, there are flashbacks to how each witness is connected to the crime. The structure keeps the reader guessing. Did Kabuo Miyamoto kill Carl Heine to get back the land that Carl’s mother stole from the Miyamoto family? It’s possible.
The characters feel so raw and real. You see them at their worst moments. All of them are flawed. Their motivations are complicated. My favorite character is the newspaper reporter, Ishmael Chambers. As a teenager, he has a secret interracial romance with the girl who will eventually become Kabuo’s wife. Their relationship ends suddenly when his girlfriend is sent to an internment camp, and he is sent to war. Ishmael never gets over his first love. If Kabuo gets the death penalty, Ishmael may have a chance of rekindling his old relationship. But, Ishmael has information that could free Kabuo. Will he turn it over to the police or keep it to himself?
“Ishmael gave himself to the writing of it, and as he did so he understood this, too: that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.” – Snow Falling on Cedars“The strange thing was, he wanted to like everyone. He just couldn't find a way to do it.” – Snow Falling on Cedars
Racism is at the heart of this story, but the author doesn’t beat the reader over the head with it or preach about it. The police become interested in Kabuo when the coroner remarks that the wound on Carl’s head looks like the ones he saw Japanese stick-fighters make during WWII. Even though WWII is over, the island’s Japanese residents still live under a cloud of suspicion.
History also plays a big part in the novel. Our personal and national histories never die. They continue to impact our lives every day. We have to decide how much we let our past control our present. It can be deadly to spend your whole life reliving the past.
My only complaint about the book is the beginning. There are a lot of details about fishing boats, and my eyes glazed over. Fishing boats are definitely on the list of things I profoundly don’t care about. However, once the details of the crime start emerging, I became hooked.
I have a feeling that this might be one of my favorite books I read this year. It’s worth reading for the atmospheric setting alone. The mystery and the complicated characters are just a bonus.