Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson: Book Review

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Cover of Snow Falling on Cedars
4 Stars

Fisherman and WWII veteran Carl Meine is found dead and tangled up in his fishing net one morning. At first glance it appears to be an accident, but the sheriff looks a little closer and starts to wonder. He soon arrests another fisherman, Kabuo Miyamoto, for murder. Against the backdrop of the murder trial, Guterson explores the roots of the conflict that led to the accusation and the lives of the witnesses in a series of flashbacks.

Gorgeous. That’s really the best word to describe this book. It’s just gorgeous. I normally tear through books pretty quickly, eager to know what happened, but this time I found myself reading slowly, savoring each elegant yet sparse turn of phrase. I still wanted to know what happened, but that was secondary to the beauty of the language.

Within this story, San Piedro Island becomes almost as much a character as anyone. The isolation, beauty and harshness of island life has shaped the islanders to become a breed apart. They are often silent, self-reliant, and careful in their interactions with each other. It’s hard to avoid someone who becomes an enemy when you both live on an island.

Set in 1954, the islanders are still feeling the effects of WWII. A lot of the men are veterans and the Japanese residents were shipped off to an internment camp. Feelings between the communities can occasionally flare up, even nine years after the war’s end.

The flashbacks to the war and the internment camp were mostly what interested me. I don’t know why I love WWII novels, but I do. I was surprised to realize that I had one in my hands with Snow Falling on Cedars. One of the main characters, Ishmael, is a WWII vet who lost his left arm in the war. He finds himself unable to move on and lives in a sort of limbo. Kabuo and his wife, Hatsue, married before Kabuo left to fight for the US in Europe. He came back a changed man, and Hatsue finds herself wondering what their life together would have been like if the war hadn’t intervened. The biggest draw of the book for me was the inclusion of the Japanese internment camps. I know vaguely that the US decided to round up our Japanese citizens into a few camps to keep an eye on them, but let’s face it, shameful episodes in a country’s history tend to be glossed over in history classes and I never learned much about it. I’ll be looking for books that go into it in more detail after this. If you’d like to know a little more, check out this Wikipedia article on Manzanar, the camp that the characters in this book were sent to. It’s hard to believe we did that in the US. Does anyone have any recommendations for historical fiction about the Japanese internment camps?

The whole courtroom thing was very secondary to everything else for me, right up until the end. I was so interested in the characters’ histories that I wasn’t too worried about what was happening in the novel’s present day. Then a character reached a crossroads and I was anxiously waiting to see what would happen. That in turn led me to get concerned about the human capacity for prejudice and unfounded hatred and to really start worrying about Kabuo’s fate. I finally did start rushing through the last 60 pages or so, hoping for the best and fearing the worst.

My one complaint would be about the handful of sexual scenes in the book. It’s not that they’re graphic or that I’m a prude. It’s just that they seemed to come out of nowhere. They didn’t feel necessary to the story and they just felt glaringly out of place.

If you like your books to travel from point A to point B with no deviation, this isn’t going to be the book for you. As dreamy as its gorgeous cover, the novel meanders through a lot of history that doesn’t have any immediate bearing on what appears to be the main story. But if you’re okay with that, and especially if you’re a fan of elegant prose, pick this up and treat yourself. I highly recommend it.

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  1. Lovely review, since I actually have the book, I hope I finally get to it this year because it does sound like one I'd enjoy!

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