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Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Snow Falling on Cedars

Ashley Marie, March 29, 2012

After a man is found dead near San Piedro Island, in Ship Channel on a fishing boat, a Japanese man is the held accountable for murder. With tensions still high only a few years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, islanders silently point their finger at the one who looks like the enemy. This story follows the trial of Kabuo Miyamoto and the secrets that are uncovered in the lives of the islanders after every bit of evidence is exposed. The novel is broken up by chapters, and each of the chapters describes either a flashback or provides evidence for the trial at hand. The story switches around from the past to the future, and skips generations and families very sporadically from chapter to chapter. For most of the trial scenes, there is a see-saw effect between the defense and prosecuting attorneys. Each provides seemingly damning evidence, but then the other leaves the reader questioning the evidence’s value after the cross examination. Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Gulbrandson, uncovers the mystery behind the death of Carl Heine, and exposes the secrets of the people who inhabit San Piedro, an island where nothing is truly as it seems. Snow Falling on Cedars challenges the idea of truth and perspective and is a compelling and beautifully written mystery that keeps readers on the edge of their seat.

The island of San Piedro is a peaceful island that has “a brand of verdant beauty that inclined its residents toward the poetical. Enormous hills, soft green with cedars, rose and fell in every direction” (6). The story takes place only a few years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, during the early month of December. A lot of the flashbacks that occur in the story are staged during the hysteria of the after effect of Pearl Harbor. One such flashback follows two characters that challenge the ways of thinking and strive to develop a relationship during this time of hysteria and hatred for the Japanese. Although knowing their love will never fully mature, characters Ishmael, the son of a local newspaper owner, and Hatsue, the daughter of a newly immigrated Japanese strawberry farmer, allow the passion they share to break through the walls of hatred and fear. They’re relationship is severed quite dramatically shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor because the Japanese in San Piedro are forced to relocate to Manzanar, an internment camp for Japanese immigrants. It is at this place where many of the characters, including Hatsue and Ishmael, come to the realization that life as they knew it before the war would be over.

The plot for Snow Falling on Cedars involves flashbacks to the past and then snaps back into reality and present time. Most of the flashbacks help with understanding the reactions of characters, and what leads them to the actions they take in present or future. During the trial scenes, flashbacks frequently occur with each witness’s testimony of the previous events. Other flashbacks, like the paralleling Hatsue and Ishmael plot, give dimension to the characters and intricate background information about issues they have had to overcome. Although these parallel plot lines sometimes complicate the plot, they ultimately lead readers to a fuller understanding of why the characters are the way they are.

Snow Falling on Cedars is highly descriptive and has wonderful character development. Each and every character is given a distinct background and quality that makes them realistic and believable. Although, some characters like Nels Gudmundsson, the defense attorney for Kabuo Miyamoto, contrast the physical appearance they are given. Nels is an old man who’s body is failing him faster than ever, he can barely walk, he’s blind in one eye, yet he is the only character who believes Kabuo’s innocence from the start and urges the jurors to “sentence [Kabuo] simply as an American” not by the “shape of [his] eyes” (418). The idea of perception and the idea that everything is not as it seems stems through Nels, because a half-blind man can see through the hypocrisy and the discrimination toward the Japanese after Pearl Harbor, but yet young and attractive Americans like the prosecuting attorney, Alvin Hooks, push farther into the separation of Japanese and Americans. The theme, the truth is farther than appearance, is littered everywhere in Snow Falling on Cedars and often the ones who appear to be the most wise are actually the most arrogant.

Overall, Snow Falling on Cedars touches the hearts of readers. The characters are relative and timeless, as are the themes and can be applied to almost every social issue on discrimination. David Guterson’s style of writing captures the readers from the first few paragraphs and keeps that attention to the very end through beautifully articulated language. With relatable issues such as romance and the fear of the unknown, this book stands above others in its genre. The detailed characterization and development, suspense, and drama add to the book’s creativity and style and make the book one that should be found on anyone’s personal bookshelf.

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