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Snow Falling on Cedars

by

Snow Falling on Cedars Cover

ISBN13: 9780679764021
ISBN10: 067976402x
Condition: Standard
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Reading Group Guide

The discussion topics, author biography, historical material, and bibliography that follow are meant to enhance your group's reading of David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at — and talking about — a novel that has been widely praised for its eloquent dramatization of themes of love, justice, racism, community, and conscience. These ideas arise organically from the book's suspenseful story of a murder trial, its evocation of a lost love, and its brooding, poetically nuanced portraits of character and place.

1. Snow Falling on Cedars opens in the middle of Kabuo Miyamoto's trial. It will be pages before we learn the crime of which he has been accused or the nature of the evidence against him. What effect does the author create by withholding this information and introducing it in the form of flashbacks? Where else in the narrative are critical revelations postponed? How is this novel's past related to its fictional present?

2. The trial functions both as this novel's narrative frame and as its governing metaphor. As we follow it, we are compelled to ask larger questions about the nature of truth, guilt, and responsibility. How does the author interweave these two functions? Which characters are aware that what is at stake is more than one man's guilt?

3. When the trial begins, San Piedro is in the midst of a snowstorm, which continues throughout its course. What role does snow play--both literally and metaphorically--in the book? Pay particular attention to the way in which snow blurs, freezes, isolates, and immobilizes, even as it holds out the promise of an "impossible winter purity" [p. 8]. How does nature shape this novel?

4. Guterson divides his island setting into four zones: the town of Amity Harbor; the sea; the strawberry fields; and the cedar forest. What actions take place in these different zones? Which characters are associated with them? How does the author establish a different mood for each setting?

5. In his first description of Carl Heine [pp. 14-16], Guterson imparts a fair amount of what is seemingly background information: We learn about his mother's sale of the family strawberry farm; about Carl's naval service in World War II; and about his reticence. We learn that Carl is considered "a good man." How do these facts become crucial later on, as mechanisms of plot, as revelations of the dead man's character, and as clues to San Piedro's collective mores? Where else does the author impart critical information in a casual manner, often "camouflaging" it amid material that will turn out to have no further significance? What does this method suggest about the novel's sense of the meaningful--about the value it assigns to things that might be considered random or irrelevant?

6. When Carl's body is dredged from the water, the sheriff has to remind himself that what he is seeing is a human being. While performing the autopsy, however, Horace Whaley forces himself to think of Carl as "the deceased...a bag of guts, a sack of parts" [p. 54]. Where else in Snow Falling on Cedars are people depersonalized--detached from their identities--either deliberately or inadvertently? What role does depersonalization play within the novel's larger scheme?

7. What material evidence does the prosecution produce in arguing Kabuo's guilt? Did these bits of information immediately provoke the investigators' suspicions, or only reinforce their preexisting misgivings about Carl's death? Why might they have been so quick to attribute Carl's death to foul play? How does the entire notion of a murder trial--in which facts are interpreted differently by opposing attorneys--fit into this book's thematic structure?

8. Ishmael suffers from feelings of ambivalence about his home and a cold-blooded detachment from his neighbors. Are we meant to attribute these to the loss of his arm or to other events in his past? How is Ishmael's sense of estrangement mirrored in Hatsue, who as a teenager rebels against her mother's values and at one point declares, "I don't want to be Japanese" [p. 201]? To what extent do Kabuo and Carl suffer from similar feelings? How does this condition of transcendental homelessness serve both to unite and to isolate the novel's characters?

9. What significance do you ascribe to Ishmael's name? What does Guterson's protagonist have in common with the narrator of Moby-Dick, another story of the sea?

10. What role has the San Piedro Review played in the life and times of its community? How has Ishmael's stewardship of the paper differed from his father's? In what ways does he resemble his father--of whom his widow says, "He loved humankind dearly and with all his heart, but he disliked most human beings" [p. 36]? What actions of Ishmael's may be said to parallel the older man's?

11. Ishmael's experience in World War II has cost him an arm. In that same war Horace Whaley, the county coroner, lost his sense of effectiveness, when so many of the men he was supposed to care for died. How has the war affected other characters in this book, both those who served and those who stayed home?

12. Guterson tells us that "on San Piedro the silent-toiling, autonomous gill-netter became the collective image of the good man" [p. 38]. Thus, Carl's death comes to signify the death of the island's ideal citizen: he represents a delayed casualty of the war in which so many other fine young men were killed. Yet how productive does the ideal of silent individualism turn out to be? To what extent is Carl a casualty of his self-sufficiency? What other characters in this novel adhere to a code of solitude?

13. Kabuo and Hatsue also possess--and are at times driven by--certain values. As a young girl, Hatsue is taught the importance of cultivating stillness and composure in order "to seek union with the Greater Life" [p. 83]. Kabuo's father imparts to him the martial codes of his ancestors. How do these values determine their behavior, and particularly their responses to internment, war, and imprisonment? How do they clash with the values of the Anglo community, even as they sometimes resemble them?

14. Racism is a persistent theme in this novel. It is responsible for the internment of Kabuo, Hatsue, and their families, for Kabuo's loss of his land, and perhaps for his indictment for murder. In what ways do the book's Japanese characters respond to the hostility of their white neighbors? How does bigotry manifest itself in the thoughts and behavior of characters like Etta Heine--whose racism is keenly ironic in view of her German origins--Art Moran, and Ishmael himself? Are we meant to see these characters as typical of their place and time?

15. Although almost all the novel's white characters are guilty of racism, only one of them--Etta Heine--emerges unsympathetically. How do her values and motives differ from those of other San Piedrans? How is her hostility to the Japanese related to her distaste for farming? To what extent are Guterson's characters defined by their feelings for their natural environment?

16. Ishmael's adolescent romance with Hatsue has been the defining fact of his life, its loss even more wounding than the loss of his arm. Yet when Hatsue first remembers Ishmael, it is only as a "boy" [p. 86] and her recollection of their first kiss is immediately supplanted by the memory of her wedding night with Kabuo. How else does Guterson contrast Hatsue's feelings for these two men? (Note that Hatsue's feelings for both Ishmael and her husband become clear in the course of making love.) What does the disparity between Hatsue's memories and Ishmael's suggest about the nature of love? Where else in this novel do different characters perceive the same events in radically different ways--and with what consequences?

17. In choosing Kabuo, Hatsue acknowledges "the truth of her private nature" [p. 89]. That choice implies a paradox. For, if Kabuo is a fellow nisei, he is also rooted in the American earth of San Piedro's strawberry fields. How is this doubleness--between Japanese and American--expressed elsewhere in Snow Falling on Cedars?

18. Ishmael's attraction to Hatsue is closely connected to a yearning for transcendence, as indicated by their early conversation about the ocean. Ishmael says, "It goes forever," while Hatsue insists, "It ends somewhere" [p. 97]. Typically, it is Ishmael who wishes to dissolve boundaries, Hatsue who keeps reasserting them, as when she gently withholds the embrace that Ishmael so desperately wants. What limits might Ishmael wish to transcend, even as a boy? Does he ever manage to do so? Does Snow Falling on Cedars hold the promise of transcendence for its characters or at best offer them a reconciliation with their limits?

19. One way that Guterson interweaves his novel's multiple narrative strands is through the use of parallelism: Ishmael spies on Hatsue; so does Kabuo. The two men are similarly haunted by memories of the war. Both Kabuo and Carl Heine turn out to be dissatisfied fishermen who yearn to return to farming. Where else in this novel does the author employ this method, and to what effect?

20. What is the significance of the novel's last sentence: "Accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart"?

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Ashley Marie, March 29, 2012 (view all comments by Ashley Marie)
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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emmejo, June 28, 2010 (view all comments by emmejo)
When a fisherman turns up dead, possibly murdered, his tiny home island is shocked and horrified. Blame quickly falls on a Japanese American man whose family had feuded with the dead man's family for many years. As the murder trial runs, everyone in the town thinks back on the history of the people of the island and the relationships that occurred, trying to understand why this happened.

I found this book boring, to be honest. The writing was dry, the characters distanced, uninteresting and hard to care about and the whole book had an air of taking itself far too seriously, and trying too hard to be "literature" rather than mere fiction.
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Henry Lacey, January 1, 2010 (view all comments by Henry Lacey)
This novel, which was an early effort by Guterson, is simply excellent. His subtle characterization and sensitive portrayal of race relations will take your breath away.
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(4 of 8 readers found this comment helpful)
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780679764021
Author:
Guterson, David
Publisher:
Vintage Books
Location:
New York :
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Fiction
Subject:
Washington (state)
Subject:
Legal
Subject:
Journalists
Subject:
Japanese Americans
Subject:
Trials
Subject:
Legal stories
Subject:
Washington
Subject:
Washington (State) Fiction.
Subject:
Trials (Murder)
Subject:
Literature-A to Z
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage Contemporaries
Series Volume:
week 8
Publication Date:
September 1995
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
480
Dimensions:
8 x 5.13 x 1 in 0.75 lb

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Snow Falling on Cedars Used Trade Paper
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Product details 480 pages Vintage Books USA - English 9780679764021 Reviews:
"Review" by , "Haunting....A whodunit complete with courtroom maneuvering and surprising turns of evidence and at the same time a mystery, something altogether richer and deeper."
"Review" by , "Compelling...heartstopping. Finely wrought, flawlessly written."
"Review" by , "Luminous...a beautifully assured and full-bodied novel [that] becomes a tender examination of fairness and forgiveness....Guterson has fashioned something haunting and true."
"Review" by , "[A] thoughtful, poetic first novel, a cleverly constructed courtroom drama with detailed, compelling characters....Packed with lovely moments and as compact as haiku — at the same time, a page-turner full of twists."
"Review" by , "Guterson...is content to stretch out a flat, stereotypical description as far as possible....[L]uckily for Guterson many readers...are willing to buy into the scam that anything this dull must be Serious and therefore Fine and therefore Beautiful Writing....Beneath all the verbal rubble in Cedars is a good murder mystery crying out to be heard..."
"Review" by , "Guterson's first novel is compellingly suspenseful on each of its several levels."
"Review" by , "Guterson uses a rich scenario and cast of characters to explore issues much deeper than the usual. Like the snowfall that is it constant refrain, Snow Falling on Cedars builds up gradually, steadily, surrounding the reader with its magic."
"Review" by , "A powerful meditation on the nature of pride and prejudice and personal responsibility....Casts a deepening spell."
"Review" by , "Intriguing....Vividly written."
"Review" by , "The novel poetically evokes the beauty of the land while revealing the harshness of war, the nuances of our legal system, and the injustice done to those interned in U.S. relocation camps. Highly recommended."
"Review" by , "Luminous....This is poetry masquerading as prose."
"Synopsis" by , San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound, is a place so isolated that no one who lives there can afford to make enemies. But in 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder. In the course of the ensuing trial, it becomes clear that what is at stake is more than a man's guilt. For on San Pedro, memory grows as thickly as cedar trees and the fields of ripe strawberries — memories of a charmed love affair between a white boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo's wife; memories of land desired, paid for, and lost. Above all, San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched. Gripping, tragic, and densely atmospheric, Snow Falling on Cedars is a masterpiece of suspense — one that leaves us shaken and changed.
"Synopsis" by , A phenomenal West Coast bestseller, winner of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, and an Abby Award nominee, this enthralling novel is at once a murder mystery, a courtroom drama, the story of a doomed love affair, and a stirring meditation on place, prejudice, and justice.
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