David Guterson’s, Snow Falling on Cedars, is a quiet, contemplative book that depicts both the isolated life of the San Juan Islands and the racism Japanese immigrants experienced before and after World War II.
The novel revolves around one major event: the death of Carl Heine. Carl is a World War II veteran, a fisherman, husband, and father. He’s quiet with a gruff disposition. Moreover, Carl is strong, handsome and respected by the community. When he was a boy, his family owned a large strawberry farm on San Pedro Island; however, after his father’s death the farm was sold by his mother. At the time, Carl, was away at war. One could say that Carl represents the status quo or ideal of the island. He’s white, he stays out of other people’s business, he works hard, and lives clean.
The threat to that status quo is the immigrant population made up mostly of Japanese. While they share the same values as the whites, the Japanese are targeted for how they look. Kabuo Miyamoto, another fisherman, is charged with Carl’s murder and the past unravels as witnesses give testimony during Kabuo’s trial. The contemplative nature of the book is achieved through the shifting viewpoints. As people testify in Kabuo’s trial, they also reflect through memories, which are not shared beyond their own inner thoughts. In this way we see the complicated past between Carl’s and Kabuo’s families.
To further complicate the plot, there is a sub-element of a long ago affair between Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue, and Ishmael Chamber’s, the owner and editor of the San Pedro newspaper. Hatsue and Ishmael’s relationship also highlights the racial tension between the whites and Japanese immigrants. What happens when the pressure comes from both sides? Is prejudice one-sided or is it more complicated? As love flounders between Hatsue and Ishmael, one begins to see the immense strain racism puts on young people. Neither Hatsue nor Ishmael feel bound by such prejudice, but as they grow up, how can they stand against their communities?
While reading the novel, I thought about another courtroom drama involving racism, Laughing Whitefish. Though it doesn’t involve a murder, Laughing Whitefish, follows a native american woman who sues a mining company that has refused to recognize her deceased father’s claim.
Both novels explore racism in the United States and how minorities are treated in the courts. Can justice be served? What does it mean to have a jury of one’s peers, when the jury is made up of white citizens who may be prejudiced? Viewed through a contemporary lens, Snow Falling on Cedars, also relates to the treatment of Arabs in the United States after the September 11th terror attacks. How were Arab communities treated in the USA? While, there was not a move to relocate Arab Americans to internment camps, like Japanese Americans were after the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was a perceptible change in the treatment of and attitude toward Arab Americans.
Though the pace of Snow Falling on Cedars may be too slow at times, its beauty and relevance outweigh that small criticism. Not only does the novel share a difficult part of the United State’s past, it also reflects the current cultural climate. Ishmael’s father tells him, there can be no enemies on an island. How can that belief scale to a larger community? How can it scale to a country that seems so divided?