On the surface, Snow Falling on Cedars is about the murder trial of Kabuo Miyamoto, an American of Japanese descent charged with murdering Carl Heine, a fellow salmon fisherman; however, the trial really provides a framework for an analysis of the effect that the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II had on the people of San Piedro Island, a small island in the Pacific Northwest. Snow Falling on Cedars opens in present-day 1954, at the start of Kabuo's trial, but the narrative moves back and forth in time. The trial itself takes only three days, but the novel spans the pre-war, World War II, and post-war eras. The novel explores the effects of war, the difficulties of race, and the mystery of human motivation. The characters act and react to one another and with one another in a combination murder mystery and courtroom drama, as well as provide the story of a doomed love affair. The text taken as a whole is a meditation on prejudice and justice and the effect that one has on the other.
On San Piedro, everyone is either a fisherman or a berry farmer, and because World War II scarred everyone, a decade later the islanders are still trying to establish some semblance of normalcy. This proves difficult, though, since the Japanese islanders — many of whom were American citizens — were taken away and imprisoned during the war. Upon their return, those of Japanese descent faced prejudice, grudges, and anti-Japanese sentiment, and those who were interned had some prejudices of their own. So did the land dispute or the wartime internment lead to the circumstances of Carl Heine's death? Only circumstantial evidence and a possible motive exist to accuse Kabuo, but nonetheless, he is jailed for 77 days and is tried in court.
Points of view shift during the telling of the story, as Guterson uses flashback not only to show how the characters perceive the events of the alleged murder but also to reveal what had happened before and during the war. Two main stories unfold and eventually merge. One of the reporters covering the trial is Ishmael Chambers, he himself a war veteran, but Ishmael is not an objective observer: Because of the war, he has lost his arm and the love of his life.
Guterson explores a variety of related themes, including how racism can and does undermine justice in a court of law. He also examines the notions of fairness and forgiveness on a personal and social level, along with the feeling of alienation. Connections exist between justice and morality; between love, betrayal, and redemption; and between a character's public and private trial. All these things are examined and re-examined as Kabuo's trial continues.
Guterson's novel was generally well received, with his knowledge of the Pacific Northwest and his attention to detail garnering him the most praise. Many critics consider Snow Falling on Cedars a great story but an even better rendering of people and place. His descriptions of the island and the people who live there have been called "incredible." His control of the dialogue and the novel's pacing have been deemed "impressive," and the development of all characters, including important but relatively minor ones, enables Guterson to "find big truths in mundane places."
Some question Guterson's style, however, claiming that Snow Falling on Cedars doesn't know whether it's a serious mystery or social commentary. These critics don't seem to like the way Guterson weaves fiction with social commentary, or else they think he just didn't succeed in what he attempted to do. Those complaints are in the minority of popular and critical opinion. Most readers tend to recognize that prejudice on either side of a relationship can lead to misunderstandings and that someone living with one foot in two different cultures is not fully a part of either.
Snow Falling on Cedars is an example of literary fiction that sold remarkably well; in fact, the paperback edition became the fastest selling novel in Vintage history. Winning the PEN/Faulkner and the Barnes and Noble Discovery (for new writers) awards, as well as having glowing verbal recommendations, didn't hurt sales either. Guterson can't explain the popularity of his text and isn't sure he understands it, but he sums up his experience with "A well-written book speaks for itself." Because Snow Falling on Cedars speaks for itself so eloquently, the book is well on its way to becoming one of American literature's new classics.
Historical Introduction to the Novel
Japanese cultural considerations inform Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. From the first century AD until the early nineteenth century, Japan was ruled under a feudal system that included a class known as the samurai. These powerful men directed personal armies of doshin and fought to maintain land ownership, regional influence, and societal order. The samurai prided themselves on honor, ancestry, bravery, and fighting skills. Their training began at a young age with mental discipline, a broad education that included poetry and reading, and instruction on social manners. In preparation for battle, the samurai trained in all aspects of war, including horse riding, knot tying, and sword fighting. The goal of the samurai was to achieve perfection on both the battlefield and in his personal life.
Samurai also believed in Buddhism and practiced the art of meditation — a state they were taught to enter by keeping their heads erect and their backs straight — as a way to calm their minds. Buddhists view desire and greed as the cause of all human suffering. They believe the end to suffering is by living a life on the Middle Path, between luxury and hardship. Truthful speech, actions done for goodness rather than reward, and a mindfulness of self are three important actions that Buddhism encourages. Buddhists admire and seek to have compassion, kindness, patience, and humility. Anything done in a deliberate way reflects back on the doer. If the motivation behind an action is dishonest, then the return will be negative. All people are part of a chain, and who they are today influences who they will become tomorrow.
Interestingly, farmers were just below samurai in the feudal system, with craftsmen, merchants, and religious all beneath them. Farmers were held in a higher regard because of their ability and responsibility to feed the nation. This centuries-old attitude of farming as a noble profession bears some influence on the willingness of Japanese immigrants to accept employment in farming situations that were undesirable to many Americans.
The Japanese internment during World War II serves as a backdrop to the novel. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Asian prejudice was not a new situation in the United States, especially in the West. Chinese laborers working on the U.S. railroads and then Japanese laborers working on farms and fisheries were viewed as undesirable. Organizations like the Japanese Exclusion League and the Native Sons & Daughters of the Golden West sought to remove the Asians from the economy and the region. Japanese immigrants were prevented from owning land, but they worked hard and became successful in spite of societal limitations. By 1941, Japanese farmers produced 33 percent of the vegetables grown in California. The surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor brought World War II onto the doorstep of the United States. The 127,000 persons of Japanese descent living in the United States became enemies of the state, even though 67 percent of them were American citizens by birth. The U.S. government arrested and questioned prominent men of Japanese descent. Many Americans feared that the entire race was capable of spying for the Japanese government.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which allowed the Secretary of War to designate and prescribe military areas "from which any or all persons may be excluded." Against the advice of the Attorney General and the Director of the FBI, the military declared western Washington, all of Oregon and California, and half of Arizona a military area within which any person of Japanese descent, regardless of citizenship, could not live. Persons of Italian and German heritage — in spite of the war in Europe — weren't included in the relocation effort, but Japanese-Americans were instructed to report to the assembly centers, taking only what they could carry. They were denied their 5th Amendment rights against deprivation of life, liberty, and prosperity and due process of the law.
Faced with sometimes as little as 48 hours to liquidate their possessions, they sold belongings for a small fraction of their worth. Businesses and homes built from hard work and sacrifice were lost as Japanese were moved by armed troops first to assembly centers and then to one of ten concentration centers in the deserts of California, Utah, and Arizona; remote regions of Colorado, Idaho, and Wyoming; and swampland in Arkansas. Lieutenant General John DeWitt and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) oversaw the transfer of the Japanese descendents into the camps. The wartime shortage of lumber and building materials meant that the hastily built camps were sparsely constructed. Several families were housed within barracks with plumbing limited to a centralized kitchen and latrine. Barbed wire and guard towers housing military personnel surrounded the camps. Travel outside the camps wasn't permitted until August of 1942, when the Department of Labor issued an urgent request for agricultural workers. With so many men serving military duty, the government was forced to use Japanese laborers to harvest crops in Colorado, Utah, Montana, and Idaho. The men were paid $12 to $19 a month for their work — with the understanding that they were only on an agricultural leave from the internment camp.
As the war continued, Nisei men (Americans of Japanese descent) were allowed to form the 100th Battalion and the 442nd Army Combat Regiment, which became the most decorated unit, with 9,486 Purple Hearts bestowed on them for military valor. Nisei students were also allowed out of the camps if they could find a university to accept them, provided the university wasn't in a declared military zone, wasn't near a railway, and didn't have an ROTC program. Finding programs that met these criteria proved to be very difficult. The camps remained open until December 17, 1944, when a public proclamation declared them closed just one day before the Supreme Court was expected to rule on the legality of the situation.
Upon their release, detainees were given $25 and train fare home. Many, however, had no home to return to. The Claims Act of 1948 allowed claims for property loss to be filed for compensation. Although claims of $148 million were filed, only $37 million was paid. Pride, physical and mental illness, or a desire to forget the incident have been among the reasons that more people didn't apply for financial reimbursement from the government.
On August 10, 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed a Civil Rights bill that gave $20,000 and an apology to each surviving detainee. The money and words are small compensation for the lives and opportunities taken from the Japanese immigrants and their children. Today, the Manzanar Camp in California serves as an historic landmark so that people won't forget the actions that occurred on America soil.
In addition to the Japanese internment during World War II, agriculture and fishing — two main occupational options that existed for men in the Pacific Northwest in the post-World War II era — also inform the novel. Both professions were more than just jobs; they were ways of life.
The landowners were the farmers, growing crops best suited to the environment. During the picking season, Japanese and Indian immigrants worked the fields. On San Piedro, strawberries were the cash crop.
If a man wasn't a farmer, then he was most likely a fisherman. During the 1950s, fishermen used gill nets extensively. These nets hung like curtains in the water and were so named because fish were trapped in the mesh by their gills. As the fishing industry became more and more competitive and industrialized, immense gill nets were created — some miles long in length — which usually caught not only fish but also birds, turtles, dolphins, and other forms of wildlife. Outrage by various environmental activist groups led to regulations outlawing such extensive means of fishing; however, gill nets are used illegally to this day.