Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson

SnowFallingOnCedarsI chose to read Snow Falling on Cedars because I was homesick for Washington, trees, rugged Pacific coastline, and the soggy wetness of living by the sea. Lots of people complain about the heavy intricacy of descriptions of cedars and sea, but I found the saturation of nature characteristic of the place, haunting, and beautiful:

“Enormous hills, soft green with cedars, rose and fell in every direction. The island homes were damp and moss covered and lay in solitary fields and vales of alfalfa, feed corn, and strawberries. Haphazard cedar fences lined the careless roads, which slid beneath the shadows of trees and past the bracken meadows. Cows grazed, stinking of sweet dung and addled by summer blackflies….The beaches glistened with smooth stones and sea foam. Two dozen coves and inlets, each with its pleasant muddle of sailboats and summer homes, ran the circumference of San Piedro, an endless series of pristine anchorages” (6-7).


The descriptions of life on San Piedro island, of the no-nonsense fishing community, young sons gone off to war and come home again, hardy homesteaders, Japanese immigrants, are intimate and personal, ripe with idiosyncrasies, peculiarities, quirks, old rivalries and loves.

I was wary of characterizations of the novel as a murder mystery or historical fiction about a Japanese internment camp, but the book defies easy stereotypes, following the trial of a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto, accused of the murder at sea of local fisherman Carl Heine. The novel opens in the courthouse in the midst of a snowstorm, but as the novel continues, sweeping back into the past, and the town becomes blanketed and isolated in white, we realize there is more at play than one man’s life. Why is Kabuo even a suspect to begin with? Because the dent in the dead man’s head resembles to the coroner’s prejudiced eye the shape of a Japanese kendo stick.

Questions of revenge, suspicion, complicity, land, love, and race are all at play, especially when a newspaperman in love with Kabuo’s wife finds out the truth of what happened that night-will he tell and why, for justice, love, revenge?

I loved Guterson’s descriptions of fishing life and the natural contours of the island, its groves of firs, the warm mossy cedar which serves as a lovers’ rendezvous, the smell of strawberry plants after rain, the purity and obscurity of snowfall and its implications for the life and actions of Kabuo.

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