The Reader XIV II -Snow Falling On Cedars

Snow Falling On Cedars

By David Guterson
Harcourt Brace & Company, New York, 1994, 336 Pp.,$21.95
Reviewed by Christine Hearn

A fisherman is found dead in his drifting boat. A fellow fisherman is charged with murder and stands trial. The time is the early 1950s. The place, a small town on San Piedro, one of the San Juan Islands. In a series of flashbacks, interspersed with trial testimony, we are drawn into a close-knit community where fascination with a different race is at odds with fear and suspicion. And where ordinary lives are suddenly disrupted by war and death.

On trial is Kabuo Miyomoto, a Japanese-born American; dead is Carl Heine Jr., a German-American. Kabuo is the son of tenant strawberry farmer Zenhichi Miyomoto, who worked and saved for years to buy seven acres from Carl Heine Sr., father of the dead man. With two payments to go, the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour and the Miyomoto family, along with others of Japanese ancestry are re-located away from the coast. Carl Sr. says not to worry about the payments, they can be made up after the war. But he dies and his wife Etta sells the land for an enormous profit, giving Zenhichi back only what he had paid in 1940.

Kabuo and Carl Jr., friends from birth, both join the us military: Kabuo to spend the war in Italy fighting the Germans, sustained by the thought of the strawberry farm he believes he will come back to as his own after the war, Carl Jr. to spend the war fighting the Japanese. In 1945 both return to San Piedro and, because the land is gone, become fishermen, the rupture over the land and the tensions remaining from the war destroying their friendship.

Interwoven with the Kabuo/Carl tension and subsequent trial is another relationship fraught with stress: that of Kabuo's wife Hatsue, the 1940 Strawberry Princess and most beautiful girl on the island, and her high school sweetheart, now local reporter Ishmael Chambers. He can't get over the loss of their sweet, tender friendship, ended when Hatsue was sent to a relocation camp.

The sense of time---pre-war and post-war---is so strong it's cinematic. The 1950s scenes seem to be in harshly lit, cold, stark technicolor with a dark blue sea, dark green cedars, and white snow outside the courthouse windows whose ". . . four tall narrow arches of leaded glass . . . yielded a great quantity of weak December light."

By contrast, the pre-war images seem captured in faded, grainy, black-and-white shapshots. Hatsue ". . . with a bow in her hair, pleats in her skirt, and books hiked up against her breast . . ." moving quietly through the small town high school in 1940. Ishmael, at dusk the same year, crouched in the strawberry patch outside her house, watching her hang out the washing. And Hatsue's family crowded around the radio for an entire day listening to the news about Pearl Harbour and wondering what would happen to them.

The sense of place is equally strong. This is a small, damp island. It's a place where heavy, wet snow is falling in the present, ". . . a snow so ethereal it could hardly be said to have settled at all; instead it swirled like some icy fog, like the breath of ghosts." And as the trial progresses the storm gets worse and the snow thickens and deepens, severing the power lines so everything is lit by kerosene lamps and candles and all sense of a reality outside the island is wiped out.

Before the war, when Hatsue and Ishmael were lovers, Carl Jr. and Kabuo were friends and the world was young and innocent, outside reality didn't intrude much either. But then it was an island paradise with everything fresh and rich and growing. Rain fell softly and gently. There was just enough sun to make things grow:

Enormous hills, soft green with cedars, rose and fell in every direction. The island homes were damp and moss covered and lay in solitary fields and vales of alfalfa, feed corn, and strawberries. Haphazard cedar fences lined the careless roads, which slid beneath the shadows of the trees and past the bracken meadows.

As you read about the early years you can feel the damp and the softness and the continuous drip, drip, drip of a gentle rain.

The weather, the island nature, and perhaps the times, conspire to turn everything inward, both before and after the war. Seattle summer people leave in early fall and the islanders are left to themselves. There is a sense of the interdependency of people in small communities, coupled with the interdependency of fishermen in trouble on rough seas.

And although the book is inward-turning, it is not claustrophobic. The community is surrounded and coddled and comforted, as well as cut off, by the sea, by the rain and eventually, by the snow, just as the young Hatsue and Ishmael are cut off from thought of war. For four secret years before Pearl Harbor they explore each other in their special hideout, an enormous cedar tree, a refuge as hidden and special and cozy as their island:

The war did not disturb them in their cedar tree, and they continued to view themselves as exceedingly fortunate in the particulars of their secret existence. Their absorption in one another, the heat of their bodies, their mingling smells and the movements of their limbs---these things shielded them from certain truths.

Eventually of course, the truths come home to roost and nothing is ever the same. Hatsue and Ishmael finally come to terms with their past, as Kabuo stands trial.

Running through the book is a strong sense of a hovering fate and of a self-discipline, and acceptance of what is. Kabuo comes from a long line of Samurai warriors. His heritage and his nature make it impossible for him to show his feelings at the trial, so all is hidden behind a mask mistaken for indifference or guilt. Hatsue is taught as a teenager to practice tranquillity and sitting still, to ". . . seek union with the Greater Life and to imagine herself as a leaf on a great tree," so her emotions are hidden as well.

The book reads like a meditation---it's lyrical, with the language building round and round on itself to reinforce the strains of the story and create a whole that is very still at the centre. Yet at the same time it's an excellent mystery. This is a first novel by David Guterson. I look forward to more.

Christine Hearn is Director of the Writing and Publishing Program at Simon Fraser University at Harbour Centre.

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