Snow Falling on Cedars (Magill Book Reviews)
SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is an impressive first novel. On their small island in Puget Sound, Guterson’s strawberry farmers, his fishermen and their wives, and his protagonist, a newspaper editor, would seem to be insulated from the turmoil of the mainland. When the body of Carl Heine, Jr., is found dragging behind his boat, however, old prejudices surface. Less than a decade after World War II, it is only too easy to look for villains within the Japanese American community. Since everyone knows that he has never become reconciled to the Heine family’s seizure of land his father had bought, Kabuo Miyomoto is arrested for murder. It is his trial which provides the framework for the novel.
While most of the islanders base their belief in Kabuo’s guilt or innocence on their own ethnic backgrounds, the newspaperman Ishmael Chambers cannot help hoping for a conviction for selfish reasons. For years, he has been in love with Hatsue Miyomoto, Kabuo’s wife, and Ishmael cannot help fantasizing about his chances if Kabuo disappears from her life. When Ishmael comes into possession of information that will clear Kabuo, he is tempted to suppress it. Nevertheless, Hatsue’s nobility and his own conscience force Ishmael to abandon his habitual cynicism, and he does the right thing, thus saving not only Kabuo but also himself. SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS is a novel which is often lyrical, always convincing, and above all, solidly based on the author’s knowledge of...
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Snow Falling on Cedars (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
David Guterson’s first novel is set on a fictional island in Puget Sound not unlike the one on which he lives with his family. In countless details, ranging from the intricacies of salmon-netting, boat handling, and the culture of strawberries, to the proper way to harvest geoduck clams, the author reveals his precise knowledge of his environment. Snow Falling on Cedars should not be classified, however, as merely an interesting piece of local color, nor even as a period study tracing the growth of anti-Japanese sentiment on the West Coast after the United States was attacked by Japan and plunged into World War II. Within the context of a murder trial almost a decade after that war, Guterson’s small island becomes a stage on which is enacted a universal drama, the battle between suspicion and hatred on one hand, and trust, compassion, tolerance, and love on the other.
As the courtroom drama unfolds, it becomes clear why Kabuo Miyomoto, a Japanese American fisherman, is suspected of murder. When Carl Heine, Jr., was found dead, entangled in the nets of his fishing boat, and then when the medical examiner discovered that Carl had received a blow to the skull before he died, the sheriff began to look for the conventional triad, motive, means, and opportunity. Kabuo had all of them. Like the other fishermen, he had been alone on his boat on the night of Carl’s death, and thus he had no alibi. There was also circumstantial evidence suggesting...
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The Internment of Japanese Americans
On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on the island of Oahu in Hawaii. This attack on an American military base sent waves of panic across the country and political pressure led President Franklin Roosevelt to sign Executive Order 9006 on February 19, 1942, forcing citizens of Japanese descent to report to internment camps. On March 31, Japanese Americans along the West Coast were given their instructions to report for registration. The time allowed for preparation ranged from two days to two weeks. During this time, people had to make arrangements for their belongings, which usually meant selling it all at a fraction of its value. Many people took advantage of the Japanese Americans in this situation, including the government. Almost 2,000 internees were told that their cars would be stored safely, but the army soon offered to buy them for less than they were worth. Those who refused to sell were later informed that their cars had been requisitioned for the war effort. A study in 1983 estimated that the total value of lost property and income to the Japanese Americans during this period totaled more than six billion dollars.
In all, there were ten internment camps (sometimes referred to as "concentration camps" although they were not designed for extermination as they were in Germany). The first was southern California's Manzanar. Over the course of the war, the ten camps held...
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Guterson's descriptive passages about the settings of the novel have drawn a great deal of comment from critics and readers. Having lived in Washington for all but a year of his life, it is no wonder his descriptions of the landscapes are so rich and sensory. In chapter fourteen, Hatsue seeks solitude in the cedar woods:
In spring great shafts of sun would split the canopy of trees and the litter fall of the forest would come floating down—twigs, seeds, needles, dust bark, all suspended in the hazy air—but now, in February, the woods felt black and the trees looked sodden and smelled pungently of rot. Hatsue went inland to where the cedars gave way to firs hung with lichen and moss. Everything was familiar and known to her here—the dead and dying cedars full of punky heartwood, the fallen, defeated trees as high as a house, the upturned root wads hung with vine maple, the toadstools, the ivy, the salal, the vanilla leaf, the low wet places full of devil's club.
Besides providing lush descriptive passages, Guterson often puts the features of his settings in motion to give them life and realism. In chapter eight, a peaceful scene is interrupted by the arrival of Ishmael and Hatsue:
Where the path met the beach the madrona trees leaned out over the tidal water. Slender and sinuous, olive green, mahogany red, scarlet, and ash, they were...
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Guterson is a remarkable writer. Few other authors, for instance, understand and use parallelisms as well as he does. He has a visiting crime reporter note that "[T]he sight of Hatsue's face in profile elicited in him the smell of pine needles strewn in the courtyard outside the tearoom." He writes very lyric and elegant prose; settings, for instance, are laden with sensual details and very specific word choices.
In the blue light of dusk he'd made the turn out of the harbor and run for open water. From his vantage point at the wheel of the Islander he saw the soft cedars of San Piedro Island, its high, rolling hills, the low mist that lay in long streamers against its beaches, the whitecaps riffling its shoreline. The moon had risen already behind the island and hung just over the big bluff at Skiff Point—a quarter moon, pale and indefinite, as ethereal and translucent as the wisps of clouds that traveled the skies.
Guterson uses an omniscient narrator to jump from one person's perspective to another, then yet another, but the reader is not jarred by the many leaps and landings. The story itself cannot be told by any single individual; no one character could know the entire story. Each character must become public about what he does know. The gestalt is more than holistic. Guterson is very cinematic in places; that enables him to create this narrative. The reader is up close when Nels Gudmundsson...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
America, as a pluralistic society, requires that many races and colors live and work in close proximity. Often racial stresses and tensions are born out of our inabilities to "see" inside our own hearts and inside those of others. The most important benefit of seeing how we once lived is that we may become more aware of how we should live both now and in the future. Our judicial system is the centerpiece of our political heritage. But the law itself is not stagnant; it evolves each day as we the body politic come to see ourselves more clearly as individuals with definite rights and responsibilities. A useful starting point for group discussions would be how Snow Falling on Cedars critiques racial relations and our justice system during the 1950s.
1. Much of Snow Falling on Cedars revolves around the father-son relationship, about how sons should follow in their father's footsteps. What do sons inherit? Does this also extend to the mother daughter relationship? How do daughters in this novel follow in their mothers' footsteps?
2. Ishmael Chambers remembers thinking, while reading The Scarlet Letter, that "the woman deserved better." Compare and contrast the marriages of Kabuo and Hatsue Miyomoto and Carl and Susan Marie Heine. Do husbands and wives understand each other? Are the wives more at ease with their lot in life? What beside the battlefield experiences might account for that?
3. Did you have any trouble...
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Snow Falling On Cedars is a romance, a mystery, and a courtroom drama. By combining all three forms, David Guterson lets us see the corrosive impact social injustice has on a small Washington State fishing community and what heavy prices individuals paid for the color of their skin. Snow Falling On Cedars, winner of the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, illuminates a dark time in recent American history, when hard-working Japanese- Americans—immigrants and the children of immigrants who wanted only those freedoms and rights all American citizens are guaranteed—were unjustly persecuted and thus suffered terribly. The racial discrimination they had endured prior to World War II was exacerbated by national hysteria after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; their nationality convicted them without a trial; they were forcibly relocated to internment camps and all their assets were seized. Even the end of the war did not bring them peace and acceptance. As the novel shows, the poisons of prejudice still lingered long after the war.
The romance—as all good romances must—comes with a triangle, two men in love with the same woman. The mystery comes complete with traditional clues, including the dead man's wristwatch that has stopped at 1:47 am and mooring lines as distinctive as fingerprints. The courtroom drama comes with facts that can be interpreted in two opposing ways and attorneys who play the race card. Snow Falling On...
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Compare and Contrast
1954: Wartime experiences figure largely into the lives of veterans who have returned home. Areas in which there is a sizeable Japanese-American population still feel the tension of reintegrating these citizens back into society af-ter they return from internment camps.
Today: While wartime experiences continue to be important to veterans of World War II the general population is most aware of them only around Veteran's Day and anniversaries of significant events in the war.
1954: Because of World War II, there is a lin-gering distrust of the Japanese by many people. As Japanese Americans return from internment camps, they face prejudices that were not pre-sent prior to the war.
Today: While most minority and ethnic groups face a degree of prejudice, the after-effects of World War II are rarely to blame for prejudice against Japanese Americans.
1954: Many Japanese Americans retain a link to their past in their spiritual lives by practicing meditation. This practice enables a person to achieve a heightened state of relaxation and focus, which often results in greater insight and the ability to be calm in difficult situations.
Today: Many Americans from a wide variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds have discovered meditation and incorporate it into...
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Topics for Further Study
Read about Japanese internment camps in the United States during World War II. Write a one-week diary from the point of view of a teenager whose family is interned in one of these camps. As you write from this perspective, keep in mind such factors as the life you left behind, how other members of your family are affected, and how this experience may affect your future.
Guterson uses highly descriptive imagery in portraying the settings of Snow Falling on Cedars. Choose three locations that are familiar to you and write about them, using sensory details (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and feelings) to give a reader a true sense of each place.
Not surprisingly, some Japanese Americans sought to right the injustices of their internment through the court system. The first case to reach the Supreme Court was as early as 1943 when Gordon Hirabayashi, a student at the University of Washington, disobeyed the curfew and refused to report for evacuation. Study this case and see if you are surprised by the Court's decision. Then pretend you are a member of the Court during this case and write an opinion (an official Court statement explaining a decision) in which you explain why you voted the way you did.
One of the novel's themes is that of interracial love. This is a theme that has been explored throughout America's history in a variety of media. Look for examples of this theme in film, literature, art, and drama. Try to find...
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Guterson himself declares that his greatest influence was Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird (1954; see separate entry), that he followed "very much the same structure and addressed the same concerns" as she did in her novel. In his words, "two separate stories become one." That is, the story of Ishmael Chambers gradually merges with the history of the community itself.
Very early on, Ishmael Chambers himself refers to the classical works of literature that formed his sense of self, including Moby Dick (Herman Melville, 1851), The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, 1884; see separate entry), and The Scarlet Letter (Nathaniel Hawthorne, 1851; see separate entry). A wise reader would suspect that Guterson did not bring them up unless we too should connect this novel with elements from them. Ishmael Chambers—like the narrator Ishmael in Moby Dick—is the outsider among those who follow the sea who must discover himself. Huckleberry Finn is about facing up to your own racial prejudices and thereby declaring yourself opposed to the prejudices of your society, while The Scarlet Letter tells of a woman defamed, who stoically survives a community's hysteria.
A case can be made that Snow Falling On Cedars has most, if not all of the ingredients found in the classical romance, a staple of Western literature for a thousand years. Liebspaar is the German word that best describes a love...
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Snow Falling On Cedars is Guterson's first novel. His first publication was nonfiction; Family Matters: Why Home Schooling Makes Sense was published in 1992. Guterson, a public high school English teacher, took his four children out of public schools and schooled them at home on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. (He gave up teaching in 1995.) He also published a collection of short stories, "The Country Ahead Of Us, The Country Behind," in 1989. The stories were written during Guterson's twenties and show his development as a writer. The stories, to quote one of them, "The Flower Garden," often deal with "the loneliness that boys feel who are forever afraid of death and of becoming men." He is currently writing his second novel, tentatively entitled East of the Mountains; he has said the novel is about growing up amid Washington State's apple orchards.
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Snow Falling On Cedars became available on two audio cassettes from Random House Audiobooks in 1995. A major motion picture from Universal Pictures (1998), the script was co-authored by Guterson, Ronald Bass, and directed by Scott Hicks.
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Snow Falling on Cedars was adapted to audio by Random House in 1998. The abridged version is narrated by B. D. Wong, and the unabridged version is narrated by Peter Marinker.
In 1999, the novel was adapted to film by Universal Pictures. Directed by Scott Hicks, this well-received film starred Ethan Hawke as Ishmael and Youki Kudoh as Hatsue. In addition to an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography, the film was nominated for an American Society of Cinematographers Award, and Golden Satellite Awards for Best Cinematography, Best Actress, and Best Picture. The film won a number of awards for Best Cinematography from city and state film critics' groups.
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What Do I Read Next?
Guterson's The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind (1989) is a collection of ten short stories about middle-class suburbia. This collection was Guterson's first published book, and it received accolades from critics.
Joy Kowaga's award-winning Obasan (1994) is based on the author's personal experiences as a Japanese-Canadian girl during World War II. The story is about a young girl named Naomi who is relocated with her family during the war. As an adult, Naomi struggles to make peace with the injustices endured in her past.
Harper Lee's classic To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is the story of a trial held in a small town in the South. Told from the point of view of a young girl named Scout, this novel explores themes of prejudice, justice, and small-town dynamics.
E. Annie Proulx's 1994 novel The Shipping News is the story of Quoyle, a Newfoundland fisherman who seems unimpressive to others, though not to the reader who witnesses his psychological and spiritual rebirth. Besides being an intriguing character study, this novel gives insight into the lifestyle and culture of fishermen.
In 1999, John Tateishi compiled the oral histories of thirty Japanese Americans who experienced the indignities of relocation camps during World War II. His book, And Justice for...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
"David Guterson," in Contemporary Authors Online, The Gale Group, 2000.
"David Guterson," in Contemporary Literary Criticism, The Gale Group, 2001.
"David Guterson," in People Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 18, May 6, 1996, p. 132.
Dodge, David, "Snow Falling on Cedars," in Booklist, Vol. 90, No. 22, August 1994, p. 2022.
Graham, Philip, "In the Country of David Guterson," in Chicago Tribune, June 30, 1996.
Harris, Michael, "Sometimes, Even Good People Must Co-exist with Evil," in Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1994, p. E4.
Hubbard, Kim, "Out of the Woods: A Surprise Bestseller, Snow Falling on Cedars, Puts Novelist David Guterson on the Map," in People Weekly, Vol. 45, No. 9, March 4, 1996, pp. 89-90.
"The Internment of Japanese Americans (1940s)," in American Decades CD-ROM, Gale Research, 1998.
Jones, Malcom, Jr., "Snow on Top, a Literary First Novel Is This Season's Sleeper Success Story," in Newsweek, Vol. 126, No. 25, December 18, 1995, p. 72.
Kenney, Susan, "Their Fellow Americans," in New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1994, pp. 12-13.
"Manzanar Relocation Center," in DISCovering Multicultural America, Gale Research, 1996.
Nathan, Paul, "It Can Still Happen," in Publishers Weekly,...
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Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars.” Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. A collection of essays covering multiple critical approaches to Guterson’s popular novel Snow Falling on Cedars.
Brantley, Jenny. “Clorox the Dishes and Hide the Books: A Defense of Snow Falling on Cedars.” In Censored Books II: Critical Viewpoints, 1985-2000, edited by Nicholas J. Karolides and Nat Hentoff. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2002. This chapter in a book on censorship and literature examines the representations of Japanese internment camps, Japanese Americans, racism, and censorship in Snow Falling on Cedars.
Haytock, Jennifer Anne. David Guterson’s “Snow Falling on Cedars”: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum, 2002. A general, helpful guide to Guterson’s novel, including its characters, plots, and themes. A good place to start for readers new to the novel.
Lefkowitz, Daniel. “On the Relation Between Sound and Meaning in Hicks’ Snow Falling on Cedars.” Semiotica 155, nos. 1-4 (2005): 15-50. This essay explores the relationship between Guterson’s novel and its adaptation to the screen. Also examines the film’s and the book’s dialogue and their use of memory.
Paul, Heike. “Old, New, and ’Neo’ Immigrant Fictions in American Literature: The Immigrant...
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