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 that, despite his initial denial, Kabuo had in fact spent some time on Carl’s boat that night, presumably lending him a battery. As for a motive, of all the men on the island, Kabuo had the most obvious reason to dislike Carl. Before the war, the dead man’s father, Carl Heine, Sr., had sold Kabuo Miyomoto’s father seven acres of good strawberry land. After her husband died, his greedy widow, Etta, took advantage of the fact that the Miyomotos were waiting out the war in an internment camp and resold the land at a higher price. When Carl, Jr., backed his mother, Kabuo made no secret of his animosity. To the sheriff, it looked like a clear-cut case of murder, and he felt justified in arresting Kabuo as the man who had committed the crime.
On one level, the novel is simply an account of Kabuo’s trial. There seems to be no question as to the outcome, for every witness who testifies seems to make the case against Kabuo even stronger. His good character is not enough to save him. Ironically, the fact that, like so many other Americans of Japanese descent, Kabuo volunteered to serve his country during the war does not help; instead, the testimony of his former sergeant as to Kabuo’s skill in kendo explains how a man so much smaller could overpower the large and powerful Carl. Perhaps most damning of all is Kabuo’s demeanor in the courtroom. While the evidence is being presented, he sits impassive, as if he is unmoved by Carl’s death, by the grief of his widow and his mother, and by the accusation that has been brought against him. To everyone in the courtroom except his wife, Kabuo has the look of a guilty man.
Until the last few pages of the book, there is no hint that Kabuo can possibly be acquitted; therefore, although as a devoted family man and a courageous war veteran he is shown sympathetically, there is no buildup of suspense as the trial progresses. The real action takes place within the three major characters, who, as they examine their past lives, serve as their own judges and juries in matters of moral guilt and innocence.
Certainly one reason that Kabuo makes such a poor impression on his jury is that they misread his impassivity as a lack of feeling; unfortunately, with their very different backgrounds, they are unaware that Japanese American parents train their children to respond to adversity by maintaining at least the appearance of composure. The jurors are right, however, in reading guilt in the defendant’s face. During the long period of imprisonment before his trial, Kabuo spent a great deal of time thinking about his wartime experiences, and he concluded that at heart he is as enthusiastic a killer as the mad samurai from whom he is descended. Kabuo feels guilty, not because of anything he has done, but because of what he believes himself to be. Therefore he finds it impossible to look innocent in the courtroom; he is so conscious of another sort of guilt that he cannot fight what he knows is a false accusation. It is almost as if in permitting himself to be convicted of a crime he did not commit, Kabuo will somehow receive expiation for his own nature.
Like Kabuo, Ishmael Chambers, the local newspaperman, has nightmarish recollections of his wartime experiences, but Ishmael has never really faced himself. Instead, he looks at his empty sleeve and indulges in...