Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Vintage Contemporaries (1995), Paperback,
460 pages. ★★★★½
Finished Snow Falling on Cedars last night at three in the morning. Well past my bedtime, goes without saying. One of those books that had been inexplicably sitting on my shelf for year after year, even though it was recommended by more people than I can count. Since there are mounds of snow everywhere you look here, I thought it would be a timely read so I finally did the right thing and picked it up. It was completely gripping and taught me about WWII on the Pacific front; to me those times have always been about the war in Europe and I had little awareness of what the war with the Japanese entailed, how the Pearl Harbour bombing affected American consciousness at the time or what Japanese Americans had to suffer during the war and it’s aftermath. The novel, set in 1954 deals with this aftermath. Several main characters are veterans and we witness their state of mind and recollections of war atrocities, but the heart of the story is set in San Piedro Island on the Pacific coast, close to Seattle, a small island community of strawberry fields and lone fishermen who put out their nets at night and hope for a big salmon catch. When one of these men, Carl Heine, is found dead at sea in his own net with a grave head injury, the blame quickly falls on Kabuo Miyamoto, whose family had been in a long dispute with Carl’s unpleasant mother over a land deal. The novel opens on Miyamoto’s court trial for first degree murder, and with each witness on the stand we see events unfold from the person’s perspective. Two other main protagonists from the island are Hatsue, née Imada and now wife of Kabuo Miyamoto, whom she became closely acquainted with during their internment in a Japanese camp; the other is Ishmael Chambers, another army veteran (along with Carl and Kabuo) who lost his arm in the war and has been in love with Hatsue since they were both children, always holding out hope he would marry her someday, though local prejudice was too strong to allow for their secret union to be declared openly. Their past relationship becomes a crucial element of the story when Ishmael, the owner of the local newspaper, gets hold of important information and must struggle with his conscience to decide whether or not to disclose his findings. This makes for a melancholy read, with the war looming in the background and active resentment toward the island’s Japanese community, the descriptions of lone fishermen out at sea in blinding fog at night hoping for a good catch, and the winter storm raging outside during the three days of the trial, uprooting trees, knocking out electricity and phones and causing cars to slide off the road. It is also an affecting story, beautifully written and with characters who are so fully realized they seem to take on their own life. I was only vaguely aware this novel had been adapted to film, and I’ll have to make sure I see it now, but I can’t imagine it’ll ever come close to the complexity of characters and vivid details of the movie which ran in my mind as I read this hugely compelling novel.