The Book Report

‘Snow Falling on Cedars’ is a reminder of the challenges of love and morality

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A man is on trial for a murder he insists he never committed. Because of where loyalties lie, the town is divided on whether he is innocent or guilty.

Japanese-American Kabuo Miyamoto is accused of the murder of fellow fisherman Carl Heine off the coast of Washington on San Piedro Island. The 1954 death and trial shake the small town and old grudges come up, confusing and influencing opinions about the defendant.

This novel, by David Guterson, deals with themes of racism, small-town life and different forms of love and morality.

Interspersed with flashbacks from several characters’ pasts, the novel walks readers through the complicated histories and relationships between San Piedro citizens, before and after World War II.

Years prior to both the war and the trial, Miyamoto’s parents made an informal agreement with Heine’s parents to buy a portion of their land. At the time, this was illegal, because Japanese citizens were not allowed to buy or own land. The Miyamotos were taken to an internment camp before making the final two payments, thus never officially owning the land.

Etta Heine, Carl’s angry and racist mother, couldn’t handle the thought of Japanese people owning her land, so she sold it to a white man shortly after her husband died and the Miyamotos were taken away. Carl eventually repurchased the land, just before Miyamoto had the opportunity to make the same move. At the trial, Etta insists the competition for this land was Miyamoto’s motive for killing her son on his fishing boat on a foggy night at sea.

Not everything about the “murder,” adds up, however. There were no witnesses, some useful evidence was lost and stories keep changing.

Ishmael Chambers, the island’s resident journalist, takes it into his hands to uncover the truth but finds himself torn because he is still in love with Miyamoto’s wife, with whom he had a forbidden childhood relationship. He questions the right thing to do in the situation, as he has information that could easily sway the outcome of the trial. Chambers must decide whether his unrequited love or his passion for the truth will lead him to a decision.

“Snow Falling on Cedars” has a 3.8-star rating on Goodreads and a 4.3 on Amazon. Personally, I’d give the novel a 3.5. There is also a namesake movie, which was released in 1999, five years after the book’s publication. While I admit the novel is beautifully written and could be great for someone else, I had trouble engaging with the text. For this reason, it took me a month to get through.

Guterson uses thick, implicit language, rich with imagery. His syntax is challenging at times, and I found myself rereading entire sections of the book in order to absorb what I had already covered. I wish I had been able to get into the book more than I did; I expect the material I read to transport me to another place, but I struggled to find that through this book. This review is far from an attempt to discourage others from reading this novel. Like I said earlier, I think other people would really enjoy the read. It just wasn’t for me.

To find out whether Miyamoto is innocent or guilty and whether Chambers makes a moral decision, read “Snow Falling on Cedars.”