Michael Harris (review date 19 September 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 786

SOURCE: "Sometimes, Even Good People Must Coexist With Evil," in Los Angeles Times, September 19, 1994, p. E4.

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[In the review below, Harris comments on character and theme in Snow Falling on Cedars.]

David Guterson's haunting first novel [Snow Falling on Cedars] works on at least two levels. It gives us a puzzle to solve—a whodunit complete with courtroom maneuvering and surprising turns of evidence—and at the same time it offers us a mystery, something altogether richer and deeper.

In 1954, off the island of San Piedro in Puget Sound, salmon fisherman Carl Heine is found drowned and entangled in his boat's gill net. It seems to be an accident. Soon, however, darker suspicions bubble to the surface, and a fisherman of Japanese descent, Kabuo Miyomoto, is put on trial for murder.

Heine, the coroner discovers, has a fractured skull; before drowning, he hit his head on something, or was hit. Evidence confirms that Miyomoto boarded Heine's boat on the foggy night when he died—a rare occurrence among these solitary and self-reliant men. Yet Miyomoto's initial statements to investigators failed to mention such a visit.

Besides, Miyomoto had a motive for foul play. When San Piedro's Japanese population was interned in 1942, his parents had nearly paid off their mortgage on a seven-acre strawberry farm bought from Heine's parents. Heine's mother, Etta, promptly sold the land to another farmer. Stoic in the face of legalized injustice, Miyomoto and his wife, Hatsue, waited patiently to repurchase the farm when its owner grew old, but instead Heine bought it just before his death.

This is the puzzle: We are led to believe that Miyomoto, who fought with the legendary 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe, is an honorable man, although his stern bearing revives anti-Japanese prejudices that nine postwar years have only lightly buried. We are led to believe that distrust of whites—his family and Hatsue's were shipped to the Manzanar camp in California's Owens Valley—and guilt over the German soldiers he has killed make him accept his arrest as fate.

But if Miyomoto is innocent, why does a net of circumstantial evidence bind him as tightly as any struggling fish?

Ishmael Chambers covers the trial for San Piedro's newspaper, which he inherited from his father. A former Marine who lost an arm fighting the Japanese at Tarawa, Chambers was Hatsue's high school sweetheart; before her crowning as Strawberry Festival Princess in 1941, they secretly met and necked in a hollow cedar tree. From Manzanar, however, Hatsue wrote denying that she loved him, and in the Pacific he felt his love turn into hate.

By now, love and hate alike have faded. "You went numb, Ishmael," his mother tells him. "And you've stayed numb all these years."

Just as Miyomoto is obsessed with getting back the exact acreage that his family lost, so Chambers sleepwalks through life in the vague hope of reclaiming Hatsue. The contrast between these two obsessions—one conscious and potentially fruitful, the other unconscious and debilitating—is Guterson's main device for leading us into the mystery.

Which is: How can people in a small, tightly knit community be neighbors for generations, even love one another, yet be torn apart by racism?

During the three-day trial, an epochal snowstorm intensifies San Piedro's isolation. Island people, Chambers' father once told him, can't afford to make enemies.

"No one trod easily upon the emotions of another…. This was excellent and poor at the same time—excellent because most people took care, poor because it meant an inbreeding of the spirit, too much held in, regret and silent brooding … fear of opening up." The ordeal of the storm, coupled with the shock of Heine's death, forces them to confront the past and cracks the ice of their reserve.

Guterson (whose previous work includes a story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind) convinces us that he knows or has researched everything essential here—details of fishing, farming and lawyering; of Coast Guard and coroner's procedures; of Japanese American culture.

With a stately pace and an old-fashioned omniscient voice, he describes the beauty of the Puget Sound islands, the bloody chaos of Tarawa, the desolation of Manzanar and the inner life of every major character.

What he finds there is usually nobility. The only semivillains are Etta Heine, a couple of FBI men and the anonymous callers who curse Chambers' father for his editorials defending the island's Japanese residents after Pearl Harbor.

Everyone else—Hatsue, Heine's widow, the judge, the sheriff, the aged defense attorney, tough and silent Heine himself—is human and often admirable.

How can so many good people coexist with a major historical evil? The mystery remains even after the puzzle is satisfyingly solved.

Merle Rubin (review date 23 September 1994)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 194

SOURCE: "First Forays Into Novel Writing," in The Christian Science Monitor, September 23, 1994, p. 12.

[In the following excerpt, Rubin offers an unfavorable review of Snow Falling on Cedars, stating "unfortunately, almost nothing in this novel comes alive."]

David Guterson, a contributing editor at Harper's Magazine and author of a story collection and a book on home schooling, would seem to have assembled the right elements for his first novel, Snow Falling on Cedars, about the murder trial of a Japanese-American fisherman set on Washington's scenic San Piedro Island in the 1950s. There's the issue of anti-Japanese bigotry, the unique beauty of the setting, and the added drama of a love triangle involving the accused man's lovely Japanese-American wife and a local reporter covering the trial.

Unfortunately, almost nothing in this novel comes alive. The leaden narrative fails to generate the suspense or the human empathy to propel the reader through an accretion of colorless details that would put even the most conscientious juror soundly to sleep. This is a pity, because somewhere in Guterson's overlong novel might have been a poignant story about the enduring, peculiarly human need to seek justice in a chaotic world.

Susan Kenney (review date 16 October 1994)

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SOURCE: "Their Fellow Americans," in The New York Times Book Review, October 16, 1994, pp. 12-13.

[In the review below, Kenney praises Guterson's handling of Snow Falling on Cedars' complex narrative.]

In March 1942, just before the 800 Japanese residents of San Piedro Island in Puget Sound are herded off to a California internment camp, 18-year-old Hatsue Imada gives what seems a naïve response to her mother's description of the deep racial bias that has surfaced in their small, isolated community in the wake of Pearl Harbor: "They don't all hate us," Hatsue says. "You're exaggerating, mother—you know you are. They're not so different from us, you know. Some hate, others don't. It isn't all of them." Hatsue should know; for four years she has been carrying on a clandestine romance with a boy named Ishmael Chambers, son of the local newspaper editor, the two of them meeting at odd moments in a huge old hollow cedar in the forest between their houses. But neither the romance nor the friendship that they have shared since childhood will survive the bitter division brought about by the war.

Successive waves of "wayward souls and eccentrics"—Canadian Englishmen, Scots-Irish, Scandinavians, Germans and most recently Japanese, who came originally as migrant labor to pick berries on the extensive strawberry fields and stayed on, aspiring for their American-born children to own their own plots—have resulted in an ethnically if not economically diverse population on this "island of five thousand damp souls." Their isolation within the spectacularly beautiful but harsh environment has fostered the illusion of community, an illusion abruptly shattered by the advent of World War II.

It's now the first week in December 1954, and snow is falling outside the courtroom in the "rainy, wind-beaten sea village" of Amity Harbor, the island's only town, "downtrodden and mildewed," where Hatsue's husband, Kabuo Miyomoto, is on trial. He is charged with the first-degree murder of Carl Heine, a fellow fisherman, whose body was found early on the morning of Sept. 16, entangled in his own gill net. Now the sole proprietor of his late father's newspaper, Ishmael Chambers, maimed both physically and psychically fighting against the Japanese in the South Pacific, looks out at the storm, hoping it will "snow recklessly and bring to the island the impossible winter purity, so rare and precious, he remembered fondly form his youth."

But the war has taken a terrible toll on the human spirit, and memories of that desperate conflict have exacerbated the racial intolerance subtly present even before the war. This is most clearly evidenced in the testimony of Carl's mother. Etta Heine, whose act in denying the Miyomoto family ownership of their all-but-paid-for seven acres of strawberry fields is revealed as the first link in a decade-long chain of events that has now apparently culminated in Carl's death at the hands of Kabuo.

Though the courtroom setting defines the present in Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson's finely wrought and flawlessly written first novel (he is the author of a book of short stories and a guide to home schooling), this meticulously drawn legal drama forms only the topmost layer of complex time strata, which Mr. Guterson proceeds to mine assiduously through an intricate series of flashbacks. Thus testimony slides ineluctably from merely verbal recollection into remembered incident into fully realized historical narrative—past events told from the numerous characters' points of view with all the detail and intensity of lives being lived before our very eyes.

The most immediate of these serial flashbacks recounts not only Sheriff Art Moran's investigation of the events surrounding Carl's death during the months preceding the trial, but also the personal histories of the people Moran has seen fit to interview and who are now being called as witnesses. Even minor characters—Ole Jurgensen, present owner of the disputed seven acres; Horace Whaley, the coroner; Carl's wife, Susan Marie; Army Sgt. Victor Maples, who testifies to Kabuo's expertise in kendo, the ancient military art of the samurai warrior—are dramatized well beyond their roles as participants in the trial.

Unlike many recent purveyors of courtroom calisthenics, Mr. Guterson does not stop there. Taking us back nearly a dozen years in both historical and personal time, he depicts the Allied invasion of the South Pacific island of Betio through the eyes of the 19-year-old Ishmael, as, lying gravely wounded on the beach, he sees the rest of his company wiped out, so that like his namesake he alone survives to tell the tale. Almost simultaneously, we accompany Hatsue and her family on their harrowing journey southward to California, and we share their deprivation and humiliation in the notorious internment camp of Manzanar, as well as the irony of Kabuo's turnabout military service fighting Germans in the European theater. Tunneling back even further, we witness Ishamel and Hatsue's secret meetings inside the hollow cedar, the development of their forbidden romance and its subsequent demise, adding emotional depth to their estrangement in the present.

As the exhaustive list of acknowledgments demonstrates, Mr. Guterson has done his homework on everything from autopsies to Zen Buddhism, taking on the enormous risk of crossing boundaries not just of time, but of sex and culture as well. The result is a densely packed, multifaceted work that sometimes hovers on the verge of digressiveness, but in Mr. Guterson's skilled hands never succumbs to the fragmentation that might well have marred such an ambitious undertaking. In fact, so compelling is the narrative that we almost lose sight of the central issue, which is, as the defense attorney Nels Gudmundsson reminds us in his summation, whether Kabuo Miyomoto is on trial for murder—even worse, will be found guilty—simply because he is Japanese.

Simply is not the right word. In a parallel to the case against Kabuo, the reader must sift back through the weight of the whole novel to determine not only whether Kabuo's accusation and trial are in fact racially motivated, but where the responsibility lies if this is in fact the case. Along with the clear manifestations of racism, there is enough evidence of people struggling with their own consciences, speaking out against prejudice, among them Ishmael's parents and Carl Heine's father, to support Hatsue's perception that "it isn't all of them" that hate.

The answer, finally, is equivocal at best. Is Kabuo's refusal to reveal his whereabouts on the fateful night a response to the prejudice he feels will condemn him out of hand, or a self-fulfilling prophecy that is in itself a form of racism? The key, Mr. Guterson seems to say, lies in the possibility of individual action. As Nels Gudmundsson instructs the jury: "Your task as you deliberate together on these proceedings is to insure that you do nothing to yield to a universe in which things go awry by happenstance. Let fate, coincidence and accident conspire; human beings must act on reason."

In a heart-stopping demonstration of this, fate, coincidence and accident do conspire to supply a crucial bit of last-minute evidence, requiring one of the actors in this drama to choose whether to act on reason and compassion, or, by giving in to hatred and anger, let accident rule every corner of the universe. Thus the mystery plays itself out, along with the storm, leaving the human heart to shake free, as the hardiest cedars shake free of snow, of the chill of hatred and war—if it only will.

Nicci Gerrard (review date 1 January 1995)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 408

SOURCE: "Love for a Cold Climate," in The Observer, January 1, 1995, p. 9.

[In the review below, Gerrard remarks favorably on Snow Falling on Cedars.]

Urban thrillers are out; the thrills of the far north are now capturing the imagination of readers. E Annie Proulx did it with the award-winning The Shipping News set among the lowering skies, blistering winds and foggy, stunning bleakness of Newfoundland. Peter Høeg did it, too, with his best-selling Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, so full of northern bitterness the wintry recesses of the human spirit. And this year, first-time novelist David Guterson is set to burst in from the cold.

Snow Falling on Cedars, to be published by Bloomsbury in May, is a glorious whodunnit blown through by the elements and full of a seductive sense of grief. It takes place on San Piedro Island (north of Seattle), in the Pacific northwest. It is a finely written courtroom drama set in the early Fifties. Inside an overheated court, a Japanese-American fisherman stands trial while the snow falls against the windows in thick flakes; outside there are soft drenching rains, deep fogs, the perfume of the cedars. Fishermen work their nets, smoke their pipes. An old love affair works its way back into the present. The shadow of war stains the present. The contrast between the murder that was done so suddenly and the landscape which endures, between hectic ugliness and calm beauty, dominates Snow Falling on Cedars.

David Guterson is in his thirties, lives on Puget Sound and is a contributing editor to Harper's magazine; he has never written a novel before. He grew up in the landscape of his novel, and says that his love of the place is central to his book. 'The setting for this novel, San Piedro Island, presented itself to me initially in black and white—like old, grainy celluloid, or like a daguerreotype … Then one day I happened to look closely at the bark of a cedar tree in the grove just outside my home. Later I placed this bark and the tree in the landscape of the novel and worked outward from there until San Piedro took on sepia and then hand-tinted hues.'

Guterson's novel is Bloomsbury's thriller for the late Nineties; like Scott Turow's extraordinarily successful Presumed Innocent, it closes like a fist around the captivated reader. It is riveting about wrongdoing, but set in a mythologised, forever unspoilt landscape of the melancholy past.

Nancy Pate (review date 12 January 1995)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 461

SOURCE: "Murder Unveils an Island's Secrets," in Chicago Tribune, January 12, 1995, p. 4.

[In the review below, Pate remarks favorably on Snow Falling on Cedars.]

It is December of 1954, and in the crowded courthouse on the Puget Sound island of San Piedro, a man is on trial for murder. Outside, a winter storm is brewing, the wind from the sea driving the snowflakes inland. Soon, the snow quietly blankets the island—much like the silent prejudice that shrouds its "five thousand damp souls."

The man accused of murdering salmon fisherman Carl Heine is another fisherman, Kabuo Miyomoto. He and Carl went to school together, but then Kabuo, like the 843 people of Japanese descent who lived on San Piedro in March of 1942, was exiled to the Manzanar internment camp. There he married a fellow islander, Hatsue, before joining the U.S. Army and fighting in Europe. After the war, Kabuo and Hatsue returned to San Piedro with dreams of having their own strawberry farm, only to find that Carl's mother, Etta, had foreclosed on the seven acres that Kabuo's late father had been buying.

This loss of the land, and a more recently foiled attempt to buy it again, is supposedly the motive for Kabuo having boarded Carl's fishing boat in the fog, bashed him on the head and pitched him overboard.

Listening to the state present its case, local reporter Ishmael Chambers, who lost an arm in the war, remembers the past. He went to school with Carl and Kabuo. But it was Hatsue who was his childhood friend, his teenage love, the girl he planned to marry in the innocent days before Pearl Harbor.

David Guterson's carefully crafted first novel [Snow Falling on Cedars] provides more than just courtroom drama. As the trial proceeds, he essentially puts the island on trial, alternating chapters of testimony and cross-examination with flashbacks—to the idyllic days when Ishmael and Hatsue dug for clams and wandered in the woods, to the deprivations of desolate Manzanar, to the horrors of war, to the investigation into Carl Heine's death. Prejudice takes many forms: the outright venom of Etta Heine; white fishermen joking that they can't tell one Japanese-American from another; islanders passively watching as their neighbors are loaded on ferries in Amity Harbor.

Guterson's prose is controlled and graceful, almost detached. But the accretion of small details gives his story weight. He's particularly good at evoking a sense of place—the yellow dust cloaking the barbed wire and barracks of Manzanar, the strawberry-scented summer on San Piedro, the slippery, kerosene-lanterned deck of a fishing boat at night. Then there is the snow falling on cedars. As the snow buries the island, Guterson's narrative begins to reveal the community's secret heart, the injustice that may break it in two.

Stephen Henighan (review date 26 May 1995)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 574

SOURCE: "Red and Yellow Necks," in The Times Literary Supplement, No. 4808, May 26, 1995, p. 23.

[In the following review, Henighan discusses characterization and the theme of racism in Snow Falling on Cedars.]

Set in 1954, on an island near Seattle, Snow Falling on Cedars describes the trial of a Japanese-American fisherman accused of murdering a white colleague. When Carl Heine's body is hauled up out of his own net, a wound on his head, combined with circumstantial evidence and racial suspicion, leads to the arrest of his neighbour and boyhood friend Kabuo Miyamoto. The trial's investigation of the tangled relations of the Heines and the Miyamotos reveals the hypocrisies and injustices of an entire era.

During the 1930s, Kabuo's parents, forbidden by law from owing land, sign a contract to buy from the Heines the seven acres on which the Miyamotos cultivate strawberries. The purchase is to be made by instalments that will culminate when Kabuo—American-born and hence permitted to own land—reaches the age of majority. The Miyamotos are only two payments short of proprietorship when the US government responds to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor by deporting them, along with all other residents of Japanese ancestry, to internment camps. They return in 1945 to find their land sold to a Scandinavian farmer, their money lost and their claim to a place in the community damaged by the racial hatred of the war years. When Kabuo sees a chance to get the land back, he grabs it; bad judgment exposes him to the charge of murder.

Guterson's handling of the theme of racial bigotry is effectively low-key. In the eyes of the residents of San Piedro Island, there are no hyphenated Americans. Many of the white islanders—nearly all of German or Scandinavian ancestry—are immigrants; some still speak accented English. Yet they are "Americans", while second- and third-generation Japanese-Americans remain "Japs". Guterson portrays most of the islanders as stolidly well-intentioned citizens blind to their own prejudices; only Carl's strident mother conforms to the redneck stereotype.

The trial scenes, narrated with camera-eye impartiality, are dramatic and suspenseful. Cinematic dissolves into past events, mainly during the Second World War, fill in the background. Guterson, a contributing editor to Harper's Magazine, displays excellent research skills in reassembling the past. Yet, while every detail in this first novel feels credible, few surprise or astonish. Snow Falling on Cedars suffers from a throttling of the imagination by particulars. There is a failure to distinguish between telling detail and information. Guterson's attempt to heighten verisimilitude by listing groups of islanders by name—fishermen whom the reader does not meet, witnesses whose testimony is not recounted, citizens (who never become characters) whose cars have broken down in a snowstorm—reduces the reader's interest in the narrative. The story lacks an intriguing protagonist. Both warrior-like Kabuo and muscular Carl remain brawny enigmas. Ishmael Chambers, the embittered war-amputee journalist who was Kabuo's wife's secret boyfriend in adolescence, is the most fully realized character. Guterson writes evocatively of Ishmael's loneliness and his efforts to come to terms with the destruction of both his body (he loses an arm in battle) and his youthful love for a woman of another race.

The novel's closing words invoke "the chambers of the human heart". But as with the lyricism promised by the title, the heart plays little role in Guterson's dispassionately executed design. None the less, Snow Falling on Cedars announces the emergence of a skilful writer.

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