This 1994 David Guterson novel combines mystery, romance, history, and… quite a bit of nasty weather (seriously—a snowstorm gets several pages of air time). It won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, which means people in the know (i.e., other authors) think it's a pretty important read.
Set in 1954, on the fictional Pacific Northwest island of San Piedro, the book revolves around the trial of local fisherman Kabuo Miyamoto, who has been accused of murdering his old buddy Carl Heine. To give us the backstory necessary to understand all the dynamics at play in the trial, the novel uses a lot of flashbacks to delve into the characters' pasts, with a particular focus on the time leading up to and during World War II.
There are some hard feelings about what went down among the residents of San Piedro during the war, particularly on the part of the Japanese American population. If you're up on your U.S. history, you know that Japanese Americans were forced into detention camps during the war (for real). Snow Falling on Cedars brings that history into the story, portraying San Piedro as a place where tensions and suspicions among Japanese Americans and non-Japanese Americans continue to run high, nearly 10 years later. In fact, anti-Japanese prejudice is at the heart of the trial—it's a huge part of why Kabuo Miyamoto ends up accused and almost convicted of murder, even though the investigating sheriff's first instinct is to say it was an accident.
The story of reporter-newspaper runner Ishmael Chambers and his teen romance with a Japanese American girl, Hatsue (who, oh yeah, is Kabuo Miyamoto's wife in the present day) also emerges as a central focus. In a novel that is deeply concerned with the difficulty of moving on from the past and healing from war's scars, Ishmael's almost pathological inability to let Hatsue go becomes symbolic of the other characters' struggle to leave behind their painful pasts (and, in some cases, prejudices and bigotry), so that they can live more fully in the present.
Okay, we will cop to the fact that Hatsue, Ishmael, and Kabuo deal with certain exceptional circumstances that are (hopefully) beyond your range of experience. Kabuo is on trial for murder, and he and his wife, Hatsue, lived through World War II and a Japanese American detention camp. We hope none of that hits too close to home for you. Like Kabuo, Ishmael served in World War II and even lost an arm in the bargain—again, hopefully not something you've had to experience.
However, you might know something about being a teenager and trying to carve out a life and identity for yourself that is separate or private from the life you have at home with your parents—and that is something both Ishmael and Hatsue struggled to do when they were teenagers. Hatsue's parents desperately wanted her to maintain a connection to her Japanese roots—that is, their traditions—and to protect her from cultural or social influences that ran counter to their values. Meanwhile, Hatsue was sneaking around with Ishmael, aware that her parents wouldn't approve of her dating a non-Japanese boy.
Tricky stuff, and you can probably relate to at least some aspect of it. No matter how much you and your parents agree on values or traditions, becoming an adult always involves at least a little uncomfortable negotiation between keeping your role in the family (and honoring its ways), yet breaking out to become your own person.
Ishmael, for his part, lives in the shadow of his much-beloved overachieving father with the rock-solid moral compass—a hard act to follow, for sure. If you've ever felt like you have to try to live up to the accomplishments of a valedictorian older sibling or rocket scientist parent, you'll feel his pain there.
These family dramas might seem small compared to some of the other stuff going on in the novel (War! Murder!), but they are really all about tensions between the past and the present, a tension that is absolutely central to the novel as a whole and a tension that—in some way or another—will probably be familiar to you, too.
Here's How It Went Down...
If you're a little rusty on the history of World War II and its impact on Japanese Americans, take a gander at the Library of Congress's teaching materials on the topic.
More About Manzanar
Manzanar is now a National Historic Site—yes, that's right, you can visit.
Our man has his own web site—check it out.
Snow Falling on Ethan Hawke's Goatee
Just kidding—he probably had to shave it to play Ishmael. Check out the deets on the movie production.
An Unlikely Fan…
… on the Washington Post Style Blog? WaPo's Ron Charles gives us the highlights of Guterson's essay in the American Scholar.
The New York Times Book Review
Check out what The New York Times's Susan Kenney had to say about the novel way back when.
Guterson: The Interview (Part 1)
Check out his 2011 interview with Fanny Kiefer, on the Canadian program Studio 4.
Guterson: The Interview (Part…er, 2)
And keep checking it out.
David Guterson talks to the BBC's World Book Club about the novel.
Ishmael and Hatsue, the Movie Versions
Actors Ethan Hawke and Yûki Kudô bring the doomed lovers to life.
Rick Yune as Kabuo Miyamoto
Actually, he's Kazuo, in the movie version. Hmm, we wonder why they changed his name.