Friday, February 5, 2010

Snow Falling on Cedars

David Guterson
New York, Vintage Books, 1995

Week 5 Fiction

I spent a couple of hours trying to figure out where San Pedro Island was in the border area of Washington State before realizing that there is no San Pedro Island. San Pedro Island is the fictional setting for the book Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson. Well, after a lot of searching, I decided that Bainbridge Island served as the setting; David Guterson taught school on the island and grew up in Seattle which is nearby.

Snow Falling on Cedars is the ”Reading Together” book for 2010 in Kalamazoo, and it is an excellent choice because it is rich and dense, with themes that will create a great deal of discussion. First of all, it is very well written. There are themes and subthemes, great speeches, and beautiful imagery, both in the setting and the details.

The framework of the story is the trial of a Japanese fisherman, Kabuo Miyamoto, who is accused of killing another local fisherman, Carl Heine. This is 1954. Because it is such a small island, feelings run deep because there is a large Japanese population, most of whom are fishermen or strawberry farmers and all of whom were interred during World War II in California. Carl and Kabuo were neighbors and were raised together, but during the war, Kabuo had fought the Germans and Carl had fought the Japanese. Kabuo’s family had owned a strawberry farm that they were buying from Carl’s family, but while they were gone, Carl’s mother had sold her farm and the Miyamoto farm as well. Now 10 years later, Kabuo is trying to get the land back from Carl.

Ishmael Chambers runs the local newspaper, as did his father. Like all the characters in the book, he knows all the major players in the story, and since his youth had been in love with Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue. Ishmael discovers the key to solving the mystery of Carl’s death in the waning days of the trial and wonders if he should reveal what he has discovered.
The scenic imagery of the book is incredible dense. A snowstorm takes up much of the narrative, and one can visualize the beautiful cedar trees, covered with snow to the breaking point. Everything is symbolic in this book…the trees, the snow, the harbor, the characters…all are part of the sense of place that permeates the book. Ishmael’s father tells him that one has to live honestly in a place like San Pedro, because if you don’t, you will never be able to hold your head high again.

It will be interesting to be a part of the discussions that come with the community read; one would expect that people will be discussing World War II, minority relationships, sin, forgiveness, guilt, reconciliation. David Guterson will be here on March 17, and hearing him will be an important component to understanding the book.

The Kirkus review says of the truths of the book: “Guterson communicates these truths through detail, not philosophical argument: Readers will come away with a surprising store of knowledge regarding gill-netting boats and other specifics of life in the Pacific Northwest. Packed with lovely moments and as compact as haiku--at the same time, a page turner full of twists.”

Ethan Hawke starred in the 1999 movie, which we are going to watch this weekend. The movie didn’t get such great reviews, so it will be interesting to see how it fares in comparison to the book.

Here is an interview of David Guterson written in January of 1996.


Carolyn said...

I am interested in the imagery of the unending snow that is falling and falling and falling in the story. Beautiful snow is peaceful...but this is a murder story. Huge quantities of snow require human the midst of an community-engulfing murder trial. The snow poses dangers to the residents as they try to go back and forth to the courthouse and to the lighthouse which has the mystery solving documents.

Christi said...

I just finished this, and I enjoyed it for the most part. The end left me wanting to hear more of each person's story. I wanted to know if Ishmael did ever marry and have children, perhaps he took up with the fisherman's widow? I am imagining more. Did Hatsue and her husband get the land from Mr. Jorgenson? How much? Maybe just thei 7 acres they wanted, or maybe all of it. What of the sleepy judge? Why so sleepy? Will the Heine children grow up with Hatsue's children? Do they know one another? Will the strawberry festival continue with a queen?