David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars is an intriguing mix of literary finesse and shrewd plot-making. While it may not exactly qualify as genre-bending it does tend to push the limits of a reader’s boundaries. The opening chapter, filled with taut courtroom dialogue and jumpy fisherman ‘types’ seemed to run perpendicular to the breathtaking character portraits that followed it. This back and forth continued throughout the book, although it may be safe to assume that the more literary aspects of the novel remained dominant.
The novel is set on the coast of an island in the Puget Sound in 1955 and follows the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, a local fisherman of Japanese origin who is under arrest for the murder of Carl Heine, another local fisherman. The murder is supposed to have been committed over a land dispute going back to before the war when Miyamoto’s family worked on the Heine family strawberry farm.
The novel uses this ‘drama’ as a backdrop to explore racism, the complications of love and loss, and above all, the destructive capacities of war on an individual. The main male characters in the novel – Ishmael, Carl and Kabuo – share a certain grim understanding of what part of their soul they were asked to give away when they willingly went to war to fight for their country. All of them use the word murderer in their self-reflection, an idea that is only accentuated as Kabuo’s murder trial plays out.
Guterson moves easily from one perspective to another, detailing the interior life of the many individuals that make up the small island community. Through these variegated lenses he manages to paint a faithful and engaging portrait of life as it may have been before and after WWII in a community that was home to a significant percentage of Japanese-Americans. All of whom were sent to the internment camps and who struggled with their bi-cultural identities.
Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue, is the character Guterson uses to express most of this bi-cultural burden and the novel follows her life in exquisite detail. From her childhood working on the island’s strawberry farms, to her secret adolescent love affair with Ishmael Chambers, to her internment during the war and subsequent marriage to Kabuo. She is a remarkable character. Torn between her understanding of her own culture and her youthful love for Ishmael, she navigates a harsh course through the racial climate of pre-WWII America.
Ishmael, for his part, returns from the war minus an arm but overloaded with a raft of bitterness. About losing Hatsue and, especially, about his understanding of how the war managed to transform him. He is a pivotal element of the novel, a man in possession of valuable information about the murder trial. His emotional struggle is one of the more poignant elements of the entire book.
Overall, Guterson does manage to marry the considerable differences between the more sensational undercurrents of the story and its literary mood, creating a lovely piece of fiction with a lot to say about 1950’s America.