Friday, January 9, 2009

David Guterson: Snow Falling on Cedars

Back in December, someone named Donna left a comment on my review of The Other by David Guterson. She said some things that made me think that I would like Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. Although it is still not my standard fare, I did like it. And it reminds me that I need to move off my traditional Mystery/Suspense thriller once in a while.

On one level, the year is 1954 on San Pedro Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. Kabuo Miyamoto is on trial for the murder Carl Heine. Ishmael Chambers owns, writes, and prints the island’s only newspaper. Hatsue Imada Miyamoto is the accused’s wife, faithfully attending the trail. Outside the worst winter storm in decades is raging.

But much of the book is told in flashback, dealing with cultural and family relationships. The economy of the island is dominated by fishing and strawberry farming. Kabou and Carl were friendly as teenagers, both strawberry farmers, playing on the same high school teams. Hatsue and Ishmael were very close friends, but kept their relationship secret. Neither family would approve a connection between their “Japanese” and “American” children.

Pearl Harbor shattered the uneasy balance between the two cultures coexisting on the island. The Miyamoto’s and Imada’s were set away to internment camps, with eight days notice. Carl and Ishmael left to fight Japanese in the Pacific. Ishmael lost an arm in the process. Kabou ultimately left camp to fight Germans in Italy.

At the close of the war, Hatsue is married to Kabou, Carl and Kabou are fishermen, and Ishmael has taken over his father’s newspaper. Old high school friendships are over.

Central to the alleged motive during the trial is a land deal between the Carl’s family and Kabou’s family. The Japanese interment comes along when the Miyamoto’s owe two more payments on strawberry land they’ve bought from the Heine’s. Carl’s mother cancels the deal, and resells the land to a neighbor. Kabuo is determined to get his family’s land back.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a many faceted book. It is a story of forbidden teenage love. It’s a war story. It’s a murder mystery. But I think it is mostly a story about prejudice and community. The characters are well developed and believable. The relationships and interchanges are well explored. There are certainly dark undercurrents running through the book. But there is hope in the story as well. It’s not as much fun as what I usually read. But it really is good.

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