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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Book Review: Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson is the story of a small community on an island off Washington state, about ten years after the end of WWII. Though the island is isolated, its population is ethnically diverse. The main action of the story, however, takes place between Caucasians and Japanese, as a Japanese man, Kabuo Miyamoto, is standing trial for the murder of a fellow fisherman. Adding to this conflict is the tension between the local newspaper owner, Ishmael Chambers, and his boyhood sweetheart, a Japanese girl named Hatsue, who is now the wife of the accused Kabuo. Snow Falling on Cedars has several themes and elements that readily commend it to be read.

First, the book is a story of how racism affects a small, isolated community. Both Ishmael and Kabuo fought for America during WWII, and both men are crippled by the war, but in different ways: Ishamel by the loss of an arm, Kabuo by the distrust immediately after WWII that whites held against anyone of Japanese descent. The story deals with the unfortunate internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, portraying (evidently accurately) what internees (prisoners) experienced in the camps.

Second, Snow Falling on Cedars is an intense love story, as Ishmael has never resolved his lost romance with Hatsue. As the community's newspaper man, he is in the awkward position of having to deal fairly, as a news man, with the very man who denied him a life with the girl he loves.

Third, the story is well-crafted. The prose is such that the reader feels the cold from the ubiquitous snow that sets the mood for most of the story. One feels the stuffiness of small rooms heated by over-active steam radiators. The reader will feel the frustration of the courtroom drama, as the opposing attorneys seem unable to arrive at the truth. And one wonders if Ishmael will go forth with the evidence that will determine the fate of Kabuo and the possibility of his own relationship with Hatsue.

The main narrative technique of the story is the memory, as the narration alternates between past and present (seamlessly, most of the time), and the reader is shown how the horrors of WWII has affected the lives of the ordinary men who went to fight.

Snow Falling on Cedars is a very good read, but I recommend it for more mature readers, as some of the scenes, though tastfully done, are nonetheless unsuitable for young readers. Disturbing and bittersweet, Snow Falling on Cedars forces us to confront racism and to ask ourselves what we would do in the same situation.

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