My cousin recently chose Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson for our online family book group. Although this best-selling book published a decade ago was very popular and won a couple of awards, I had never read it (though I did see the movie adaptation years ago). This descriptive, immersive courtroom drama set on a small island north of Puget Sound in the 1950’s has elements of suspense, family drama, and historical fiction.
As the novel opens in 1954, a Japanese-American man named Kabuo Miyamoto is on trial on the small island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington. Kabuo is accused of murdering another local man, Carl Heine, who, like Kabuo, made his living as a fisherman. In that first chapter, the courtroom scene is described in detail, introducing some of the people in the town, as well as the island itself. Throughout the novel, courtroom scenes in 1954 are interspersed with flashbacks to fill in the backgrounds and histories of the characters.
Kabuo grew up on the island, working side by side with the rest of his family in the strawberry fields. His father’s dream was to purchase a small plot of land for his own strawberry farm. Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue, is sitting near him in the courtroom and also grew up in a family of strawberry farmers with four sisters. Also in the courtroom is Ishmael Chambers, the island’s reporter, editor, and publisher of its small newspaper, taking notes on the proceedings. Ishmael lost an arm in the war. Right from those opening scenes, it is clear that Ishmael is upset by what is happening and there is more going on than meets the eye.
From there, the novel follows the court case closely, with dialogue from each witness, so that the reader learns of the details of the case right along with the jurors. Along the way, the author delves more deeply into each character: Art Moran, the sheriff; Lew Fielding, the judge; both the prosecuting and defense attorneys, Carl Heine and his family; and more. Ishmael, Kabuo, and Hatsue – who all went to school together on the island – get the most attention, going back to their childhoods, their parents, and their experiences during the war.
I won’t say much more about the plot because the novel very slowly reveals its secrets as the court case unfolds and feeling that gentle suspense build is one of its charms. This is much more than a murder mystery, though. Given the timing of the story and the Japanese-Americans at its heart, history is also a very important component. We see how Kabuo’s and Hatsue’s families (and all the rest of the Japanese-Americans on the island) were a part of the community and then abruptly ripped away to be sent to internment camps on the mainland. We hear the details of Ishmael’s, Kabuo’s, and Carl’s war experiences and witness how those experiences affected and changed each of them.
The historical details are an integral part of the story, forming significant parts of each character’s backstory. The effects of war are powerful and tragic, though different for each character that experienced it. Most of all, though, the internment itself and its effects on all the citizens of San Piedro – both white and those of Japanese ancestry – are chilling. The panic and suspicion that quickly spreads after Pearl Harbor and the deep, lingering biases and resentments that are still there almost 10 years later feel frighteningly similar to some of what we are seeing today in our own world.
Finally, the setting adds another dimension to this unique story. The island and its inhabitants are described in great detail so that the island itself comes to life, almost like another character in the book. Weather is a significant part of that setting, as well, given the island’s location and size. The huge snowstorm that starts on the first day of the trial adds drama to the proceedings, while weather also plays a significant role in the farming and fishing industries on the island and the everyday lives of the islanders.
Snow Falling on Cedars is a long book and a densely written one, filled with descriptions of the island and its people that bring this world to life on the pages. It is beautifully written in a way that makes you care about the characters as if they were real people. The suspense builds slowly, with the exact explanation of what happened the night of Carl’s death held back until the very end. This is a haunting story that I suspect will stay with me for a long time. Although it was first published in 1995, it feels vividly real – and frighteningly relevant – today.
460 pages, Vintage Books