San Piedro Island in Puget Sound is a place where the local economy depends on the salmon fisherman and the strawberry farmers. One morning in 1954, the fishing boat of Carl Heine is adrift in the water. When the sheriff investigates, he finds Carl’s body ensnared in his own net. What first appears to be an accident is soon determined to be murder.
The man accused of murder is a fellow fisherman and a World War II veteran who saw combat in Europe. Eclipsing all of this, in the eyes of many, is the fact that this man is Japanese – sharing a face and culture with a nation that had been at war with the United States just a decade earlier.
Kabuo Miyamoto’s trial is held in the midst of a devastating snow storm that December. The jurors spend their nights sequestered in the town’s hotel, without the benefit of heat, while they ponder the serious matter or innocence or guilt.
Writer David Guterson is the architect of a fascinating plot. He uses flashbacks extensively as a way of providing background for the reader. Generally, I’m not a big fan of flashbacks, but Guterson’s flashbacks tie together nicely, so it works well.
The main conflict in the book is between the Caucasian members of the community and the large population of Japanese ancestry. The war drove a deep wedge between the groups. Even though many of the Japanese men put on the uniform of the United States and risked their lives for their country, there are still a great many people who distrust them.
Beyond the community-level conflict is a family conflict. Before the war, Carl Heine’s father had agree to sell seven acres of land to Kabuo Miyamoto’s father. When the Japanese members of the community are sent off to relocation camps by the government, there are just two payments remaining. Carl’s father would have forgiven late payments and settled up with Kabuo’s father after the war. However, he dies, and Carl’s mother essentially revokes the deal and sells the land to someone else (she can be a bit of a, um, “unpleasant person” and is a bit of a racist). As you might imagine, this sows the seeds of anger.
We are given the opportunity to see life inside the relocation camp. The buildings are drafty and cold, the food causes digestive illnesses, and there are not enough toilets to accomodate the group. These scenes really triggered guilt for me. Although I wasn’t alive at the time, I am disappointed in how our government treated Japanese-Americans during the war. At some level, I understand the logic and the fear of spies among us – but at another level, I see a group of Americans being deprived of their rights. My own heritage is German, and I sometimes wonder what would have happened to my own family if the goverment had decided that German-Americans were a threat (interestingly, my own father was drafted and served in Okinawa in the 40s).
When Kabuo returns from the war, he tries to buy back his family’s land, without success. Years later, the land is for sale again, and Carl Heine is first in line to buy it. Kabuo Miyamoto is second in line – seeing those precious seven acres slip from his grasp once again. He is frustrated – but is he angry enough to kill?
There are a host of memorable characters in the book. The point of view bounces around a lot during the book, but much of the present-day point of view is that of Ishmael Chambers, the one armed man (war injury) who runs the small town newspaper that his father started. Then there is Hatsue Miyamoto, who shared a secret, forbidden relationship with Ishmael when they were teenagers. As it happens, she is now married to Kabuo Miyamoto, the accused man.
Ishmael, Hatsue, and Kabuo are the major characters in the book, but there is a larger group of secondary characters that have considerable depth. Does the fact that the defense attorney needs to have his prostate removed really do much to move the plot forward? No, but it does help to humanize him.
Snow Falling on Cedars was yanked from the shelves of several schools because of the sexual content. Honestly, there’s a fairly decent amount of sexual content, but it hardly overwhelms the plot. It’s not as if there are pages upon pages of graphic descriptions – it’s certainly not Danielle Steele.
When the first audio tape began (hey, it’s a 12 year old car – no CD player), the voice reminded me of Morgan Freeman. It’s not actually him, but rather Peter Marinker. Nonetheless, the Freeman-esque voice is very pleasant to listen to, aside from a handful of interesting pronuncitations (likely a result of Marinker being British). Overall, very easy to listen to.
For more audiobook selections, check out the great audiobooks discussion held on this blog recently.
A very enjoyable book. I kept finding myself being fascinated by Kabuo’s dedication toward purchasing those coveted seven acres. I grew up on a small dairy farm, but even our small farm was 160 acres. I can’t imagine a mere seven acres supporting an entire family – but then again, seven acres of strawberries is completely different than 160 acres split into corn, oats, hay, and pasture.
There’s a bit of something for everyone in Snow Falling on Cedars. Love story? Yeah, a few of those. A bitter family feud? Check. Tales of war? It’s in there. Race relations? Oh, yeah. Courtroom drama? Certainly.
About the Author
Kosmo is an aspiring novelist, vehement opponent of the designated hitter, student of true crime, and plays the keyboard for The Soap Boxers – an eclectic, team-written web magazine. He also knows what really killed the dinosaurs.