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Snow Falling on Cedars ()

Vintage Books List of the Best Reading Group Books

It is 1954 on San Piedro Island in Puget Sound.  Kabuo Miyamoto stands accused of killing Carl Heine, Jr., the son of Etta Heine, who essentially stole the land that the Miyamoto's were about to finish buying before they were shipped to the Manzanar concentration camp in 1942.  Carl, Jr. was found in his own fishing net, drowned and with his skull stove in, and Miyamoto's was the closest boat.  In addition, Carl's blood is on Miyamoto's gaff, one of his lines is found tied to a cleat on Miyamoto's boat and Miyamoto refuses to explain these anomalies.

As the trial unfolds, local newspaper editor Ishmael Chambers is flooded with memories.  He had a secret love affair with the young Japanese girl who later married Miyamoto and he lost an arm fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific.  Now it appears that he may be the only thing that stands between Miyamoto and a guilty verdict.

There is really no way to avoid the fact that only the Jim Crow laws compare to the Internment of the Japanese during World War II as the low point for civil rights in this country.  Even Slavery and the annihilation of the Indians made sense within the context in which they occurred.  But the rounding up of American citizens, in 1942 under the provisions of Executive Order 9066, simply because of their race, was genuinely despicable.  And it is especially important to recall that it was the act of two of the deities of 20th century American Liberalism--FDR and Earl Warren.  This is instructive both for what it tells us about the men, that just like Bull Connor or Lester Maddox they placed their own political interests ahead of human rights, as well as for what it tells us about the terror a democracy is capable of imposing.  It is significant to note that the Japanese were rounded up only in states where they wielded little political power.  Hawaii, which had actually been attacked and where they were a much larger portion of the population, made no effort to intern it's population, in no small part, because they represented a political force to be reckoned with later.

So how can you not fall prostrate and worshipful before this oh so earnest tale of racism in the Pacific Northwest in the 40's and 50's?  How about, because the author stacks the deck so badly on one side that the book is devoid of even the semblance of dramatic tension.

Here's the first sentence of the novel:

    The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly
    on the defendant's table--the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as possible at his
    own trial.

From this unambiguous beginning, Miyamoto is subsequently cloaked in ever increasing layers of nobility, until the very concept that he could have committed this crime is almost laughable.  So we're not exactly engulfed in a mystery here.

Does the trial tell us something about racism?  Well, no.  Given the excruciatingly contrived set up of the evidence in Carl, Jr's death, it would have been irresponsible not to try Miyamoto for the murder.  Is the process itself corrupted by bigotry?  Hardly.  Judge, prosecutor and defense attorney all seem trapped in a trial they don't really believe in.

So what's the point?  In one of the interviews below, Guterson claims that he was influenced by Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.  However, when Lee wrote her book it was an act of political courage for a Southern woman to honestly portray the racist Southern justice system.  And Atticus Finch put himself, his children and his legal practice at risk in order to defend an unjustly accused black man.  No character here is taking similar risks and Guterson is so risk averse that he nearly beatifies his Japanese american characters.  There is really no similarity between the two books and Guterson does not deserve to be compared to Lee.

The end result is the literary equivalent of The Shawshank Redemption (see the Shawshank Corollary in Glossary).  Everything in the book is predictable from the moment you read the dust jacket.  The only interest remaining is the forlorn hope that you're wrong and there's some plot twist coming.   Moreover, it is a sorry statement on the state of our public morality that critics have praised the book for the quality of the moral choice that Ishmael finally makes.  Where I come from, you don't accrue much spiritual credit for revealing the facts that clear an innocent man, even if you did want him out of the way so you could shtup his wife.

It's not a bad book.  It has some redeeming qualities, not least of which is reminding our historically challenged society about the internment of innocent Japanese citizens during the War.  But it is just so intellectually lazy and morally flaccid that it's hard to recommend it.


Mr.  Judd,
Here is a copy of my essay.

By Rachel Smith  C.B. West High School

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson is set in 1954 and is a story of love, tragedy, and deception.  Kabuo Miyamoto, a citizen of San Piedro Island, is on trial for the murder of Carl Heine, Jr..  This novel essentially deals with San Piedro Island's prejudice against Japanese Americans.  This book has been consumed by critics nationally and regurgitated in the form of pages upon pages of reviews praising the book.  However, a critical essay by Orrin C. Judd tears down the novel and the reviewerís condescending voice brutally criticizes Gutersonís work.  Overall, the review questions the mystery of the novel, and I do not agree with Judd's opinion.

Judd's doubts about the novel are evident in his discussion of its opening.  He notes the novel's beginning sentence.  "The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant's table -- the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as possible at his own trial"  (Guterson  3; ch. 1).  Judd called this introduction an "unambiguous beginning" where "Miyamoto is subsequently cloaked in ever increasing layers of nobility, until the very concept that he could have committed this crime is almost laughable"  (Judd  7).  Judd preaches
through the review about the novel's lack of mystery and its sickening predictability.  The claim is that from the moment you pick up the book it is unavoidable to recognize that Miyamoto is innocent.

I see the novel from a different perspective with regard to Miyamoto's innocence.  I spent almost the whole time while reading this book wondering if Miyamoto had, in fact, committed this crime.  The overwhelming evidence and Miyamoto's choice to conceal the truth makes the reader question his
innocence.  The book's conclusion is doubtful until the very end, provoking the uncertainty which makes the reader analyze the story long after the book has been set aside.  Guterson brilliantly weaves the wound on the victim's head and Miyamoto's Kendo, or "stick fighting" expertise into the overflowing basket of evidence against him.  Because of his strength of character, guilt arises when one points a finger at Miyamoto.  The evidence leaves the reader torn between reality and a fairy tale which traditionally includes the honest hero who always makes the right decision.  The reader desperately wants to believe in Miyamoto, but it is almost impossible to have faith in someone with so many strikes against him.  This plainly reveals Guterson's talent as a writer and also reminds readers that one should not condemn a character until the truth comes out.   Guterson does this, and thus leaves his readers guessing until the end.

Judd has other protests against the novel. He complains that "The only interest remaining is the forlorn hope that youíre wrong and thereís some plot twist coming"  (Judd  7).  There are quite a few plot twists in the novel.  Just as one is about to admit defeat and  conclude that the "good guy"  was unveiled as the "bad guy," the truth escapes.  The story of what really happened relieves the readers:  a freighter is responsible for Heine's death, not Kabuo Miyamoto.  This turn in events does not have even a shred of predictability in it, and is the ending which everyone was hoping for, but never thought would be realized.

I believe that in the review of this book, Judd overlooks the main point of the novel.  While taking many paragraphs to attack its mystery, Judd represents the moral standing with only a sentence or two.  His brief and demeaning generalization states:  "It is a sorry statement on the state of our public morality that critics have praised the book for the quality of the moral choice that Ishmael finally makes"  (Judd  7).  Guterson is teaching a lesson in this novel, and Judd mercilessly belittles him.  Ishmael Chambers is in love with Miyamoto's wife, Hatsue, declaring, "Iíll always love you.  I donít care what else happens.  Iím always going to love you"  (Guterson  207; ch.14).  Chambers meant what he said, because years later, he still longs for Hatsue.  Regardless of this, he sacrifices his happiness by telling the truth concerning Heine's death.  Chambers is the one person who knows the truth, and by clearing Miyamoto of the charges, he and his wife will reunite.  Chambers reluctantly,
yet selflessly tells Hatsue the truth of what happened.  Chambers is used as a role model in this book who is willing to stand up for someone else, even if it means losing his last chance of reclaiming Hatsue as his own.  This shows that Chambers has values and principles, and Guterson displays this character as someone that should be commended and admired.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a mysterious, unpredictable novel which "keeps you on the edge of your seat."  The story's creative turn of events and intervention of past and present distinguishes it from most others.  Guterson challenges not only the mind but also the heart in this work of art, and Judd clearly missed the principle which saturates the book.  This book is one which should be praised for its many strengths, and Judd did not realize or recognize the truth and brilliance of the novel.


Grade: (C-)