“Snow Falling on Cedars”- Book Review
The thing I love about reading lesser-known novels is that there’s a greater chance you’ll be left absolutely surprised. Stories like Romeo and Juliet and The Odyssey are so commonly known you could practically recite the entire plot beat by beat like the Pledge of Allegiance. Not having the intense hype definitely helps as well, that way your expectations are so low that you basically go into the story with a blank slate. The reason I’m laying this out is because it is how I was when I started reading David Guterson’s 1994 novel, Snow Falling on Cedars.
The year is 1954. The setting, a small fishing community spread out along the fictional island of San Piedro, which is located off the northern coast of Puget Sound. A Japanese-American man named Kabuo Miyamoto is stranding trial for the murder of Carl Heine, a white fisherman. As the trial wears on, it becomes very clear that this case is about much more than murder. Brewing under the surface is a long-standing essence of racial prejudices and a childhood love affair destroyed by circumstance.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m more of a fantasy girl. It’s my favorite genre, my niche as a writer. But I do often like to try something different. The reason I picked Snow Falling on Cedars is because I’m fascinated with period pieces. I’ll admit it took me a few chapters to get me into the story. Not that the novel started rough, but it took me a short while to get used to the repetitive court room dialogue and Guterson’s extensively detailed descriptions. Once I got to the meat of everything, however, I was hooked. I was one hundred percent in.
As I was reading, the story played out like a movie in my head. Guterson paints a clear portrait of San Piedro. You get a sense of how this community works- their connections, their economy, and their environment (both physical and social). The characters felt so in the flesh and the semi-love triangle storyline provides a crucial emotional edge and never feels forced or melodramatic. I commend the author for conveying racial prejudice as the true villain of the story. The book highlights a small aspect of U.S. history that not many people know about.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment spread like wildfire across the United States. People were terrified. I remember seeing an old black-and-white photograph of a Japanese-owned shop in California that had hung a huge sign with the words, “We Are Americans!” across the front of the building. In the novel, the citizens of San Piedro line the coast with their rifles in hand, fearing and prepared for a full Japanese invasion. The Japanese-Americans were forced to surrender their belongings (their property, their houses, their cars, their books) to the government, who viewed them as potential spies. They were then herded up like cattle and sent away to internment camps.
This sort of injustice is experienced firsthand by the main characters, and the negative sentiment which stems from it resonates throughout the story. Hell, I saw parallels two what happened in the past to what is going on in this day and age. I mean think about it. After a massive attack on U.S. soil, society and the government try to isolate a group of people who look like the original attackers. Again, sound familiar?
Snow Falling on Cedars is an excellent book. It’s a page turner, and gets increasingly more interesting as the case unfolds. Some moments are dulled down by really, really long descriptions, but it never detracts too much from the greatness of the book. I thought it was a great read, and I definitely recommend it as a good period drama as well as an interesting slice of history.
Cosmic Grade: A