There are few novels that successfully combine courtroom drama, romance, and insight into human nature. In his novel Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson highlights all these and more in a tale of war, jealousy, prejudice and deceit. This combination was intriguing to me, so I thought I would share the most interesting elements of this tale.
The backstory is a history of friction between Kabuo Miyamoto’s family, who are immigrants from Japan, and Carl Heine’s family, who are of German descent. Despite this, Kabuo and Carl become friends in the small fishing town of San Piedro, Washington in the 1930’s. The onset of World War 2 breaks this friendship apart despite Kabuo’s service in the United States military. The feud between the two families is magnified when, 20 years later, Carl is found dead in the ocean and convincing evidence is found for Kabuo’s guilt. Not until the reader is given a picture of that fateful day, through both flashbacks and a succession of courtroom deliberations, do they find out whether Carl’s death was an accident or Kabuo’s deed.
The love story that intertwines this courtroom drama occurs between the characters of Kabuo’s wife, Hatsue, and Ishmael Chambers, a journalist covering Kabuo’s trial. The two fall in love as teenagers and hide their relationship. They are caught, and because it was a time when interracial marriage was looked down upon, they are forbidden to see one another. Twenty years later, unmarried and still in love with Hatsue, Ishmael finds a document that proves Kabuo’s innocence and could set him free. His true love is proven when, after much deliberation, he shares the truth with Hatsue and the jury on the morning they were to find Kabuo guilty of murder.
Ishmael’s struggle with this decision is reflected by Guterson’s poignant imagery. When Ishmael views the “reckless water, the frenzied wind, the snow, the downed trees, the boats dashed against their sunken docks . . . it occurred to Ishmael for the first time in his life that such destruction could be beautiful” (428). This reflects the beautiful yet destructive love Ishmael has for Hatsue. In his desperation to get her back, he considers not coming forward with the proof that could free his nemesis. Wanting only for her to be happy, he eventually tells the truth and moves on with his life.
Guterson writes comprehensively on themes not typically dealt with in modern literature, such as jealousy, the battle with time, and man’s insignificance. It was widely understood on the island of San Piedro that “only insofar as he struggled successfully with the sea could a man lay place to things”(39). The hard-working fishermen who spent long hours on the waves are the heroes of this small town and are admired for their bravery and patience as they toil alone on their boats. Ironically, Carl Heine, the burly, seemingly indestructible German, loses this struggle when he is thrown overboard and his boat demolished by the wake of a freighter. This portrays one of the underlying themes of Snow Falling on Cedars, man’s frailty amidst the larger reality of the ocean, time and a life fully lived.
Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars. Vintage Books: New York, 1995. Print.