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Snow Falling on Cedars
David Guterson
Reviewed by Kathy Hare

          "Snow Falling on Cedars" is a love story and mystery; placed in a beautiful setting that demands readers examine an ugly subject - bigotry.

          David Guterson's novel opens with a courtroom scene; the year is 1954. Kabuo Miyamoto sits stoically at the defendant's table, mesmerized by the falling snow. Miyamoto is on trial for the murder of a childhood friend, Carl Heine, whose body was found entangled in fishing nets.

          Guterson's choice of a murder victim with a German surname is no coincidence.  The plot of the novel poignantly contrasts the treatment of American citizens of German versus Japanese ancestry during WW II.  While both countries were enemies of the United States, only Japanese Americans had their property confiscated and were herded off to internment camps for the duration of the war.  Prejudice against the Japanese remained high after the war as Guterson depicts in his description of the trial.     

          Court spectators from the tight-knit community of San Piedro, an island in Puget Sound, view Miyamoto as detached and uncaring, representing the blood-thirsty enemy many of them fought a few years earlier. But newspaper owner Ishmael Chambers remembers attending high school with Miyamoto.  Furthermore, Chambers has never recovered from his teenage love affair with Kabuo's wife, Hatsue.

          Guterson uses Ishmael's and Hatsue's reflections to transport the reader back in time as he describes their secret relationship and the overwhelming racial prejudice existing during that time period.  The extent of the bigotry is seen when San Piedro residents, many of whom interacted with their Japanese neighbors on a daily basis, stand by and do nothing as the entire Japanese population of San Piedro is carted off to a camp in New Mexico shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  While life in the camp never approached the deprivations of the concentration camps in Germany, Guterson paints an accurate picture of the hardships and harsh restrictions placed upon American citizens solely because of their racial identity.  

          He also addresses the cross-cultural complexities of racial segregation during the 1940's. Both Caucasians and Orientals were adamant about keeping the races separate, a fact he illustrates when Hatsue's mother discovers her daughter's love affair with Ishmael.  Wanting to put a quick end to the relationship she arranges for Hatsue to marry Kabuo.

          Carl's mother, a mean-spirited woman who hates the Japanese, is the antagonist in the novel.  She seizes and resells the Miyamotos' land after they are sent to the camp.  She also sells the Heine family farm while Carl is overseas fighting the Japanese, thus setting the scene for both Carl and Kabuo to become fishermen when they return from the war.

          As in any suspense novel, Guterson builds a strong case against Miyamoto. But the theme of this novel is more important and timely than who killed Carl Heine. "Snow Falling on Cedars" reminds readers how government leaders can manipulate a natural inclination to distrust a group that is different from the majority of the population, taking that prejudice and using it for their own political purposes. Uniting in hatred against a different race, religion, or culture can happen very quickly and without much thought. 

America has a long history of bigotry.  Americans of African decent experienced its wrath for centuries.  Irish immigrants faced job postings reading, "No Irish need apply." During WWII it was the Japanese population, today it is the Muslims, tomorrow it may be...you.

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2006 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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