“Gripping, tragic, and densely atmospheric—a masterpiece of suspense 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, 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.”
Snow Falling on Cedars won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction in 1995. In 1999 it was then adapted into a movie which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Cinematography. This was also a popularly challenged book due to sexual content. That’s why I chose to read it during banned books week.
Trigger warnings: racism, death, murder, mention-loss of child, intense war depictions, PTSD, mention-suicide.
What a mystery life was! Everything was conjoined by mystery and fate, and in his darkened cell he meditated on this and it became increasingly clear to him. Impermanence, cause and effect, suffering, desire, the precious nature of life. Every sentient being straining and pushing at the shell of identity and distinctness.
We all know that my guilty pleasure is courtroom drama. I never know how an author is going to go about such a thing. Guterson gave us a rich history of the people who lived on San Piedro—Amity Harbor—with a side of courtroom drama. I would be lying if I told you I didn’t drop a star because of how little I was allowed in the courtroom. The past events definitely take over the novel to describe how they all ended up where they are. And let me tell you, there are a lot of characters mentioned in this book. It’s most definitely a character-driven novel. Normally, I wouldn’t enjoy that, but I can definitely appreciate this one.
› Kabuo Miyamoto: On trial for the murder of Carl Heine, a fisherman who was found dead in the water. He has a wife named Hatsue and children. Eight days after he married his wife, he went into the war—442nd Regimental Combat Team—where he actually ended up killing other people. That part of his life still sticks with him every day. Since he practices Buddhism, he believes this is all happening because of bad karma. His family has a history with the Heine’s—picking strawberries for them on their many acres of land. That is actually a huge reason why he is accused other than the fact that he’s Japanese.
› Carl Heine: One of San Piedro’s well-known salmon gill-netter, even though “he was courteous but not friendly.” He’s married to a woman named Susan Marie and has three children with her. He served as a gunner on the U.S.S. Canton, which went down during the invasion of Okinawa, but he managed to survive and get home to his family. When his father passed away Carl’s mother Etta sold all of their land to a man named Ole Jurgensen. The problem with that was the Miyamoto’s were still making payments to own seven acres of that land. I won’t spoil how this all went down but it’s actually quite harsh. I hated Etta, but she’s not in the story very long.
› Ishmael Chambers: A 31-year-old reporter who went to high school with Kabuo. His father Arthur actually started the paper Ishmael now writes for—The San Piedro Review. Before he became a reporter, he was trained as a marine rifleman with 750 other recruits during the summer of 1942. He lost his arm and dealt with “phantom limb” for a while thereafter. He doesn’t have a lot going for him except the undying love for Hatsue, Kabuo’s wife. They used to hang out in the cedar trees when they were younger and Ishmael became attached to her. Unfortunately, her parents would never agree to their relationship. Hatsue was sent to the Manzanar internment camp where she wrote him a letter saying she didn’t love him and that he should move on. Later in the novel, Ishmael talks to his mother about how unhappy he is. It’s actually quite heartbreaking to read.
“What else do we have?” replied Ishmael. “Everything else is ambiguous. Everything else is emotions and hunches. At least the facts you can cling to; the emotions just float away.”
“Float away with them,” said his mother. “If you can remember how, Ishmael. If you can find them again. If you haven’t gone cold forever.”
The one thing I didn’t like about Ishmael is how obsessive he was over everything. He got mad at Hatsue for not loving him back, therefore insulting her in his head. I never understood the need to be pushy. It doesn’t get you anywhere.
› There are so many other characters I could talk about, but they’re all just people who testify. They don’t play a huge role in the story other than pulling you in different directions.
› The mystery does end up being solved, and it wasn’t what I was expecting. You actually have to look past all the racism, anger, resentment, and think logically. It does discuss how corrupt the justice system is, though. It does that most of the story, but Guterson has the ability to throw in characters who care about what is right and wrong in this situation. I think that’s what I loved most about this book.
› I’m just happy that the ending doesn’t leave the reader hanging. Everything is explained and wrapped up with one last realization:
“Ishmael gave himself to the writing of it, and as he did so he understood this, too: that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.
Should this have been challenged/banned in schools?
I’ll be the first to admit that it threw me off with the sexual descriptions. I’m just used to sex being in romance novels and not literary fiction. The scenes are very detailed, and probably shouldn’t be read by a child, obviously. I recommend reading this when you can grasp the understanding of sex without it being funny or gross. Everything in this book is done with eloquence, and the steamy scenes are no exception. I just think that schools should just be more mindful of the books that take in. There are so many other aspects of this book that could be considered controversial.
I think this is an important book to read. Was it my favorite book of all time? No. It definitely had its slow parts sprinkled in here and there. Did I appreciate what it did, though? Yes. There was something about it that kept me wanting more. I highly recommend this if you’re interested. There’s a lot to unpack in this one, but I’ll leave the rest for you to explore. Feel free to discuss the novel in the comments if you have read it!
Guterson was born in Seattle, Washington, and received an M.A. from the University of Washington. A Guggenheim Fellow, and a former contributing editor to Harper’s magazine, he is a co-founder of Field’s End, an organization for writers.
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