Random House: Bringing You the Best in Fiction, Nonfiction, and Children's Books
Authors
Books
Features
Newletters and Alerts

Buy now from Random House

  • Snow Falling on Cedars
  • Written by David Guterson
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780679764021
  • Our Price: $15.95
  • Quantity:
See more online stores - Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars

A Novel

Written by David GutersonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by David Guterson

Snow Falling on Cedars Cover

Bookmark,
Share & Shelve:

  • Add This - Snow Falling on Cedars
  • Email this page - Snow Falling on Cedars
  • Print this page - Snow Falling on Cedars
ABOUT THE BOOK ABOUT THE BOOK
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ABOUT THE AUTHOR
AWARDS AWARDS
READER'S GUIDE READER'S GUIDE
Categories for this book
» see more tags
Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award

American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award

San Piedro Island, north of Puget Sound, is a place so isolated that no one who lives there can afford to make enemies.  But in 1954 a local fisherman is found suspiciously drowned, and a Japanese American named Kabuo Miyamoto is charged with his murder.  In the course of the ensuing trial, it becomes clear that what is at stake is more than a man's guilt. For on San Pedro, memory grows as thickly as cedar trees and the fields of ripe strawberries--memories of a charmed love affair between a white boy and the Japanese girl who grew up to become Kabuo's wife; memories of land desired, paid for, and lost. Above all, San Piedro is haunted by the memory of what happened to its Japanese residents during World War II, when an entire community was sent into exile while its neighbors watched.  Gripping, tragic, and densely atmospheric, Snow Falling on Cedars is a masterpiece of suspense-- one that leaves us shaken and changed.

"Haunting.... A whodunit complete with courtroom maneuvering and surprising turns of evidence and at the same time a mystery, something altogether richer and deeper."--Los Angeles Times

"Compelling...heartstopping. Finely wrought, flawlessly written."--The New York Times Book Review

Excerpt

At the intersection of Center Valley Road and South Beach Drive Ishmael spied, ahead of him in the bend, a car that had failed to negotiate the grade as it coiled around a grove of snow-hung cedars. Ishmael recognized it as the Willys station wagon that belonged to Fujiko and Hisao Imada; in fact, Hisao was working with a shovel at its rear right wheel, which had dropped into the roadside drainage ditch.

Hisao Imada was small enough most of the time, but he looked even smaller bundled up in his winter clothes, his hat pulled low and his scarf across his chin so that only his mouth, nose, and eyes showed. Ishmael knew he would not ask for help, in part because San Piedro people never did, in part because such was his character. Ishmael decided to park at the bottom of the grade beside Gordon Ostrom's mailbox and walk the fifty yards up South Beach Drive, keeping his DeSoto well out of the road while he convinced Hisao Imada to accept a ride from him.

Ishmael had known Hisao a long time. When he was eight years old he'd seen the Japanese man trudging along behind his swaybacked white plow horse: a Japanese man who carried a machete at his belt in order to cut down vine maples. His family lived in two canvas tents while they cleared their newly purchased property. They drew water from a feeder creek and warmed themselves at a slash pile kept burning by his children--girls in rubber boots, including Hatsue--who dragged branches and brought armfuls of brush to it. Hisao was lean and tough and worked methodically, never altering his pace. He wore a shoulder strap T-shirt, and this, coupled with the sharp-honed weapon at his belt, put Ishmael in mind of the pirates he'd read about in illustrated books his father had brought him from the Amity Harbor Public Library. But all of this was more than twenty years ago now, so that as he approached Hisao Imada in the South Beach Drive, Ishmael saw the man in another light: hapless, small in the storm, numb with the cold and ineffective with his shovel while the trees threatened to come down around him.

Ishmael saw something else, too. On the far side of the car, with her own shovel in hand, Hatsue worked without looking up. She was digging through the snow to the black earth of the cedar woods and throwing spadefuls of it underneath the tires.

Fifteen minutes later the three of them walked down the road toward his DeSoto. The Willys station wagon's rear right tire had been perforated by a fallen branch still wedged up under both axles. The rear length of exhaust pipe had been crushed, too. The car wasn't going anywhere--Ishmael could see that--but it took Hisao some time to accept this truth. With his shovel he'd struggled defiantly, as if the tool could indeed change the car's fate. After ten minutes of polite assistance Ishmael wondered aloud if his DeSoto wasn't the answer and persisted in this vein for five minutes more before Hisao yielded to it as an unavoidable evil. He opened his car door, put in his shovel, and came out with a bag of groceries and a gallon of kerosene. Hatsue, for her part, went on with her digging, saying nothing and keeping to the far side of the car, and throwing black earth beneath the tires.

At last her father rounded the Willys and spoke to her once in Japanese. She stopped her work and came into the road then, and Ishmael was granted a good look at her. He had spoken to her only the morning before in the second-floor hallway of the Island County Courthouse, where she'd sat on a bench with her back to an arched window just outside the assessor's office. Her hair had been woven then, as now, into a black knot against the nape of her neck. She'd told him four times to go away.

"Hello, Hatsue," said Ishmael. "I can give you a lift home, if you want."

"My father says he's accepted," Hatsue replied. "He says he's grateful for your help."

She followed her father and Ishmael down the hill, still carrying her shovel, to the DeSoto. When they were well on their way down South Beach Drive, easing through the flats along the salt water, Hisao explained in broken English that his daughter was staying with him during the trial; Ishmael could drop them at his house. Then he described how a branch had hurled down into the road in front of him; to avoid it he'd hit his brake pedal. The Willys had fishtailed while it climbed the snapped branch and nudged down into the drainage ditch.

Only once, driving and listening, nodding politely and inserting small exclamations of interest--"I see, I see, yes, of course, I can understand"--did Ishmael risk looking at Hatsue Miyamoto in the rectangle of his rearview mirror: a risk that filled all of two seconds. He saw then that she was staring out the side window with enormous deliberation, with intense concentration on the world outside his car--she was making it a point to be absorbed by the storm--and that her black hair was wringing wet with snow. Two strands had escaped from their immaculate arrangement and lay pasted against her frozen cheek.

"I know it's caused you trouble," Ishmael said. "But don't you think the snow is beautiful? Isn't it beautiful coming down?"

The boughs in the fir trees hung heavy with it, the fence rails and mailboxes wore mantles of it, the road before him lay filled with it, and there was no sign, anywhere, of people. Hisao Imada agreed that it was so--ah, yes, beautiful, he commented softly--and at the same moment his daughter turned swiftly forward so that her eyes met Ishmael's in the mirror. It was the cryptic look, he recognized, that she'd aimed at him fleetingly on the second floor of the courthouse when he'd tried to speak to her before her husband's trial. Ishmael still could not read what her eyes meant--punishment, sorrow, perhaps buried anger, perhaps all three simultaneously. Perhaps some sort of disappointment.

For the life of him, after all these years, he couldn't read the expression on her face. If Hisao wasn't present, he told himself, he'd ask her flat out what she was trying to say by looking at him with such detached severity and saying nothing at all. What, after all, had he done to her? What had she to be angry about? The anger, he thought, ought to be his own; yet years ago now the anger about her had finished gradually bleeding out of him and had slowly dried up and blown away. Nothing had replaced it, either. He had not found anything to take its place. When he saw her, as he sometimes did, in the aisles of Petersen's Grocery or on the street in Amity Harbor, he turned away from seeing her with just a little less hurry than she turned away from seeing him; they avoided one another rigorously. It had come to him one day three years before how immersed she was in her own existence. She'd knelt in front of Fisk's Hardware Center tying her daughter's shoelaces in bows, her purse on the sidewalk beside her. She hadn't known he was watching. He'd seen her kneeling and working on her daughter's shoes, and it had come to him what her life was. She was a married woman with children. She slept in the same bed every night with Kabuo Miyamoto. He had taught himself to forget as best he could. The only thing left was a vague sense of waiting for Hatsue--a fantasy--to return to him. How, exactly, this might be achieved he could not begin to imagine, but he could not keep himself from feeling that he was waiting and that these years were only an interim between other years he had passed and would pass again with Hatsue.

She spoke now, from the backseat, having turned again to look out the window. "Your newspaper," she said. That was all.

"Yes," answered Ishmael. "I'm listening."

"The trial, Kabuo's trial, is unfair," said Hatsue. "You should talk about that in your newspaper."

"What's unfair?" asked Ishmael. "What exactly is unfair? I'll be happy to write about it if you'll tell me."

She was still staring out the window at the snow with strands of wet hair pasted against her cheek. "It's all unfair," she told him bitterly. "Kabuo didn't kill anyone. It isn't in his heart to kill anyone. They brought in that sergeant to say he's a killer--that was just prejudice. Did you hear the things that man was saying? How Kabuo had it in his heart to kill? How horrible he is, a killer? Put it in your paper, about that man's testimony, how all of it was unfair. How the whole trial is unfair."

"I understand what you mean," answered Ishmael. "But I'm not a legal expert. I don't know if the judge should have suppressed Sergeant Maples's testimony. But I hope the jury comes in with the right verdict. I could write a column about that, maybe. How we all hope the justice system does its job. How we hope for an honest result."

"There shouldn't even be a trial," said Hatsue. "The whole thing is wrong, it's wrong"

"I'm bothered, too, when things are unfair," Ishmael said to her. "But sometimes I wonder if unfairness isn't . . . part of things. I wonder if we should even expect fairness, if we should assume we have some sort of right to it. Or if--"

"I'm not talking about the whole universe," cut in Hatsue. "I'm talking about people--the sheriff, that prosecutor, the judge, you. People who can do things because they run newspapers or arrest people or convict them or decide about their lives. People don't have to be unfair, do they? That isn't just part of things, when people are unfair to somebody."

"No, it isn't," Ishmael replied coldly. "You're right--people don't have to be unfair."

When he let them out beside the Imadas' mailbox he felt that somehow he had gained the upper hand--he had an emotional advantage. He had spoken with her and she had spoken back, wanting something from him. She'd volunteered a desire. The strain between them, the hostility he felt--it was better than nothing, he decided. It was an emotion of some sort they shared. He sat in the DeSoto and watched Hatsue trudge away through the falling snow, carrying her shovel on her shoulder. It occurred to him that her husband was going out of her life in the same way he himself once had. There had been circumstances then and there were circumstances now; there were things beyond anyone's control. Neither he nor Hatsue had wanted the war to come--neither of them had wanted that intrusion. But now her husband was accused of murder, and that changed things between them.
David Guterson

About David Guterson

David Guterson - Snow Falling on Cedars

Photo © Tom Collicott

David Guterson is the author of five novels: Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the PEN/Faulkner and the American Booksellers Association Book of the Year Award; East of the Mountains; Our Lady of the Forest, a New York Times Notable Book and a Los Angeles Times and Seattle Post- Intelligencer Best Book of the Year; The Other; and Ed King. He is also the author of a previous story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind; a poetry collection, Songs for a Summons; and two works of nonfiction, Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense and Descent: A Memoir of Madness. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, he lives in Washington State.
Awards

Awards

WINNER 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Teachers Guide

About the Book

The discussion topics, author biography, historical material, and bibliography that follow are meant to enhance your group's reading of David Guterson's Snow Falling on Cedars. We hope that they will provide you with new ways of looking at--and talking about--a novel that has been widely praised for its eloquent dramatization of themes of love, justice, racism, community, and conscience. These ideas arise organically from the book's suspenseful story of a murder trial, its evocation of a lost love, and its brooding, poetically nuanced portraits of character and place.

About the Guide

The place is the fictional island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington, a community of "five thousand damp souls" [p. 5] who support themselves through salmon fishing and berry farming. The time is 1954, eight years after the end of World War II, in which some of San Piedro's young men lost their lives and many others were irreparably injured, physically as well as emotionally.

Now one of those survivors--a gill-netter named Carl Heine--has drowned under mysterious circumstances and another fisherman is on trial for his murder. The fact that the accused, Kabuo Miyamoto, is a first-generation Japanese American is not mere coincidence. To the local coroner, Heine's injuries suggested that the sheriff look for "a Jap with a bloody gun butt" [p. 59]. And among San Piedro's Anglos, hostility against Japanese still runs high, even if, like Kabuo, those Japanese were born and raised on the island and fought for the United States during the war. Kabuo's trial, in a sense, is a continuation of the white community's quarrel with its Asian neighbors.

But the Japanese--and particularly Kabuo and his wife, Hatsue--have their own grounds for resentment, stemming from years of bigotry that culminated during World War II, when thousands of Japanese Americans were interned in government relocation camps and Kabuo was effectively robbed of land that his father had worked and paid for. Even as the state presents its case against Kabuo Miyamoto, the reader is compelled to recognize the Miyamotos' case against their white neighbors, the best of whom stood by as an entire community was driven into exile. Their case never receives a public hearing: it can only be prosecuted in the courtrooms of memory and conscience.

It is not only the Japanese who remember. Among the trial's observers is Ishmael Chambers, the embittered war veteran who runs the San Piedro Review. Ishmael is not an objective witness. He grew up with Carl and Kabuo. He lost an arm on Tarawa to Japanese machinegun fire. Most important, Hatsue was Ishmael's boyhood love and he has never come to terms with losing her. In the course of the trial he will find himself torn between rancor and conscience, loath to forgive Hatsue yet unable to condemn her husband. To a large extent, Snow Falling on Cedars is about the ways in which Ishmael, Kabuo, and Hatsue at last acknowledge their respective losses and recognize the sense of mutual indebtedness and need that may survive even the gravest injuries and betrayals--the way in which loss itself may become a kind of kinship. In a place as isolated as San Piedro, "identity was geography instead of blood" [p. 206] and people make enemies reluctantly, knowing that "an enemy on an island is an enemy forever" [p. 439]. The snow that falls on David Guterson's hauntingly imagined world falls on everyone who lives in it.

Historical Background

Between 1901 and 1907, almost 110,000 Japanese immigrated to the United States. They were drawn by promises of ready work--American railroads actually sent recruiters to Japanese port cities, offering laborers three to five times their customary wages--and by worsening economic conditions in their homeland, which was undergoing social upheaval in the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration. Although many originally came as dekaseginin--temporary sojourners--work was plentiful, not only on the railroads, but in the lumber camps, salmon fisheries, and fruit orchards of Oregon and Washington. Increasingly, the newcomers stayed on. Many purchased their own farms. In time, these issei--first-generation Japanese--started families.

The Japanese government actively encouraged emigration, and although the Gentleman's Agreement of 1908 curbed the flow of Japanese men, it allowed unrestricted entry to their wives and children. Many women were "picture brides," who came to join husbands they knew only through photographs and letters and whom they had "married" by proxy in ceremonies in their native villages.

Very quickly the newcomers encountered antagonism. Although Japanese constituted less than two percent of all immigrants to the U.S., newspapers trumpeted an "invasion." The mayor of San Francisco proclaimed that "the Japanese are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made." The Sacramento Bee warned that "the Japs...will increase like rats" if allowed to settle down. The Asiatic Exclusion League agitated for legislation to halt all Japanese immigration. Politicians ran for office on anti-Japanese platforms. In 1923, the state of Oregon prohibited issei from legally buying land. A year later, Congress passed the National Origins Act, which banned all immigration from Japan.

In spite of this, the newcomers thrived. They found ways of getting around some laws (under Oregon's Alien Land Law, first-generation Japanese could legalize their land purchases by registering them in the names of their American-born-or nisei-children). They tolerated other laws. Meanwhile, the immigrants preserved the ceremonies and values of Japan even as they encouraged their children to acculturate and, particularly, to educate themselves. "You must outperform your detractors," one issei counseled his children. Typically, the nisei grew up thinking of themselves as Americans, yet were reminded of their difference every time they encountered the taunts and ostracism of their white neighbors.

Following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, hostility turned into paranoia--and paranoia became law. Japanese who had lived in America for thirty years were accused of spying for their native land. The day after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Treasury Department ordered all Japanese-owned businesses closed and all issei bank accounts frozen. The U.S. government had already compiled lists of Japanese whose loyalties might be suspect, and more than 1,000 businessmen, community leaders, priests, and educators were arrested up and down the West Coast.

The restrictions escalated. Japanese homes were searched for contraband. Telephone service was cut off. One newspaper columnist wrote: "I am for the immediate removal of every Japanese on the West Coast to a point deep in the interior....Herd 'em up, pack 'em off and give 'em the inside room in the badlands...let 'em be pinched, hurt, and hungry." In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which empowered the government to remove "any and all" persons of Japanese ancestry from sensitive military areas in four western states. Japanese residents had only days in which to evacuate. They were compelled to sell their land and businesses for a fraction of their value, or to lease them to neighbors who would later refuse to pay their rent. All told, some 110,000 Japanese Americans were deported from their homes to hastily built camps such as Tule Lake and Manzanar, where they lived behind barbed wire for the duration of the war.

Neither Germans nor Italians living in this country were subject to similar restrictions, and recently declassified documents reveal that the Japanese population was never considered a serious threat to American security. In all of World War II, no person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States, Alaska, or Hawaii was ever charged with any act of espionage or sabotage. As one nisei later wrote, the victims of Executive Order 9066 were people whose "only crime was their face."

In 1988, the U.S. government formally apologized to Japanese citizens who had been deprived of their civil liberties during World War II.

This information was gathered from Lauren Kessler, Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese-American Family. New York, Random House, 1993.

About the Author

David Guterson was born in Seattle in 1956. His father, Murray Guterson, is a distinguished criminal defense lawyer: "One of the things I heard [from him] early on was to find something you love to do--before you think about money or anything else. The other thing was to do something that you feel has a positive impact on the world."

Guterson received his M.A. from the University of Washington, where he studied under the writer Charles Johnson. It was there that he developed his ideas about the moral function of literature: "Fiction writers shouldn't dictate to people what their morality should be," he said in a recent interview. "Yet not enough writers are presenting moral questions for reflection, which I think is a very important obligation."

After moving to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, Guterson taught English at the local high school and began writing journalism for Sports Illustrated and Harper's magazine, where he is now a contributing editor. He is the author of the novels East of the Mountains, Our Lady of the Forest, The Other, Ed King, and Snow Falling on Cedars, which won the PEN/Faulkner Award; a story collection, The Country Ahead of Us, The Country Behind; and Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense. He has three forthcoming books: a memoir, Descent, from Vintage in 2013; a new story collection, Problems with People, from Knopf in 2014; and a book of poems, Songs for a Summons, from Lost Horse Press in 2014. He lives in Washington State.

Discussion Guides

1. Snow Falling on Cedars opens in the middle of Kabuo Miyamoto's trial. It will be pages before we learn the crime of which he has been accused or the nature of the evidence against him. What effect does the author create by withholding this information and introducing it in the form of flashbacks? Where else in the narrative are critical revelations postponed? How is this novel's past related to its fictional present?

2. The trial functions both as this novel's narrative frame and as its governing metaphor. As we follow it, we are compelled to ask larger questions about the nature of truth, guilt, and responsibility. How does the author interweave these two functions? Which characters are aware that what is at stake is more than one man's guilt?

3. When the trial begins, San Piedro is in the midst of a snowstorm, which continues throughout its course. What role does snow play--both literally and metaphorically--in the book? Pay particular attention to the way in which snow blurs, freezes, isolates, and immobilizes, even as it holds out the promise of an "impossible winter purity" [p. 8]. How does nature shape this novel?

4. Guterson divides his island setting into four zones: the town of Amity Harbor; the sea; the strawberry fields; and the cedar forest. What actions take place in these different zones? Which characters are associated with them? How does the author establish a different mood for each setting?

5. In his first description of Carl Heine [pp. 14-16], Guterson imparts a fair amount of what is seemingly background information: We learn about his mother's sale of the family strawberry farm; about Carl's naval service in World War II; and about his reticence. We learn that Carl is considered "a good man." How do these facts become crucial later on, as mechanisms of plot, as revelations of the dead man's character, and as clues to San Piedro's collective mores? Where else does the author impart critical information in a casual manner, often "camouflaging" it amid material that will turn out to have no further significance? What does this method suggest about the novel's sense of the meaningful--about the value it assigns to things that might be considered random or irrelevant?

6. When Carl's body is dredged from the water, the sheriff has to remind himself that what he is seeing is a human being. While performing the autopsy, however, Horace Whaley forces himself to think of Carl as "the deceased...a bag of guts, a sack of parts" [p. 54]. Where else in Snow Falling on Cedars are people depersonalized--detached from their identities--either deliberately or inadvertently? What role does depersonalization play within the novel's larger scheme?

7. What material evidence does the prosecution produce in arguing Kabuo's guilt? Did these bits of information immediately provoke the investigators' suspicions, or only reinforce their preexisting misgivings about Carl's death? Why might they have been so quick to attribute Carl's death to foul play? How does the entire notion of a murder trial--in which facts are interpreted differently by opposing attorneys--fit into this book's thematic structure?

8. Ishmael suffers from feelings of ambivalence about his home and a cold-blooded detachment from his neighbors. Are we meant to attribute these to the loss of his arm or to other events in his past? How is Ishmael's sense of estrangement mirrored in Hatsue, who as a teenager rebels against her mother's values and at one point declares, "I don't want to be Japanese" [p. 201]? To what extent do Kabuo and Carl suffer from similar feelings? How does this condition of transcendental homelessness serve both to unite and to isolate the novel's characters?

9. What significance do you ascribe to Ishmael's name? What does Guterson's protagonist have in common with the narrator of Moby-Dick, another story of the sea?

10. What role has the San Piedro Review played in the life and times of its community? How has Ishmael's stewardship of the paper differed from his father's? In what ways does he resemble his father--of whom his widow says, "He loved humankind dearly and with all his heart, but he disliked most human beings" [p. 36]? What actions of Ishmael's may be said to parallel the older man's?

11. Ishmael's experience in World War II has cost him an arm. In that same war Horace Whaley, the county coroner, lost his sense of effectiveness, when so many of the men he was supposed to care for died. How has the war affected other characters in this book, both those who served and those who stayed home?

12. Guterson tells us that "on San Piedro the silent-toiling, autonomous gill-netter became the collective image of the good man" [p. 38]. Thus, Carl's death comes to signify the death of the island's ideal citizen: he represents a delayed casualty of the war in which so many other fine young men were killed. Yet how productive does the ideal of silent individualism turn out to be? To what extent is Carl a casualty of his self-sufficiency? What other characters in this novel adhere to a code of solitude?

13. Kabuo and Hatsue also possess--and are at times driven by--certain values. As a young girl, Hatsue is taught the importance of cultivating stillness and composure in order "to seek union with the Greater Life" [p. 83]. Kabuo's father imparts to him the martial codes of his ancestors. How do these values determine their behavior, and particularly their responses to internment, war, and imprisonment? How do they clash with the values of the Anglo community, even as they sometimes resemble them?

14. Racism is a persistent theme in this novel. It is responsible for the internment of Kabuo, Hatsue, and their families, for Kabuo's loss of his land, and perhaps for his indictment for murder. In what ways do the book's Japanese characters respond to the hostility of their white neighbors? How does bigotry manifest itself in the thoughts and behavior of characters like Etta Heine--whose racism is keenly ironic in view of her German origins--Art Moran, and Ishmael himself? Are we meant to see these characters as typical of their place and time?

15. Although almost all the novel's white characters are guilty of racism, only one of them--Etta Heine--emerges unsympathetically. How do her values and motives differ from those of other San Piedrans? How is her hostility to the Japanese related to her distaste for farming? To what extent are Guterson's characters defined by their feelings for their natural environment?

16. Ishmael's adolescent romance with Hatsue has been the defining fact of his life, its loss even more wounding than the loss of his arm. Yet when Hatsue first remembers Ishmael, it is only as a "boy" [p. 86] and her recollection of their first kiss is immediately supplanted by the memory of her wedding night with Kabuo. How else does Guterson contrast Hatsue's feelings for these two men? (Note that Hatsue's feelings for both Ishmael and her husband become clear in the course of making love.) What does the disparity between Hatsue's memories and Ishmael's suggest about the nature of love? Where else in this novel do different characters perceive the same events in radically different ways--and with what consequences?

17. In choosing Kabuo, Hatsue acknowledges "the truth of her private nature" [p. 89]. That choice implies a paradox. For, if Kabuo is a fellow nisei, he is also rooted in the American earth of San Piedro's strawberry fields. How is this doubleness--between Japanese and American--expressed elsewhere in Snow Falling on Cedars?

18. Ishmael's attraction to Hatsue is closely connected to a yearning for transcendence, as indicated by their early conversation about the ocean. Ishmael says, "It goes forever," while Hatsue insists, "It ends somewhere" [p. 97]. Typically, it is Ishmael who wishes to dissolve boundaries, Hatsue who keeps reasserting them, as when she gently withholds the embrace that Ishmael so desperately wants. What limits might Ishmael wish to transcend, even as a boy? Does he ever manage to do so? Does Snow Falling on Cedars hold the promise of transcendence for its characters or at best offer them a reconciliation with their limits?

19. One way that Guterson interweaves his novel's multiple narrative strands is through the use of parallelism: Ishmael spies on Hatsue; so does Kabuo. The two men are similarly haunted by memories of the war. Both Kabuo and Carl Heine turn out to be dissatisfied fishermen who yearn to return to farming. Where else in this novel does the author employ this method, and to what effect?

20. What is the significance of the novel's last sentence: "Accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart"?

Teacher's Guide



NOTE TO TEACHERS

The discussion topics, author biography, historical material, and bibliography that follow are meant to guide your students in their approach to David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars. We hope that they will aid class discussion and inspire independent reflection and writing about a novel that has been widely praised for its eloquent dramatization of themes of love, justice, racism, community, and conscience.

ABOUT THIS BOOK

The place is the fictional island of San Piedro off the coast of Washington, a community of “five thousand damp souls” [p. 5] who support themselves through salmon fishing and berry farming. The time is 1954, nine years after the end of World War II, in which some of San Piedro’s young men lost their lives and many others were irreparably injured, physically as well as emotionally. Now one of those survivors—a gill-netter named Carl Heine—has drowned under mysterious circumstances and another fisherman is on trial for his murder. The fact that the accused, Kabuo Miyamoto, is a first-generation Japanese American is not mere coincidence. To the local coroner, Heine’s injuries suggested that the sheriff look for “a Jap with a bloody gun butt” [p. 59]. And among San Piedro’s Anglos hostility against Japanese still runs high, even if, like Kabuo, those Japanese were born and raised on the island and fought for the United States during the war. Kabuo’s trial, in a sense, is a continuation of the white community’s quarrel with its Asian neighbors.

But the Japanese—and particularly Kabuo and his wife, Hatsue—have their own grounds for resentment, stemming from years of bigotry that culminated during World War II, when thousands of Japanese Americans were interned in government relocation camps and Kabuo was effectively robbed of land that his father had worked and paid for. Even as the state presents its case against Kabuo Miyamoto, the reader is compelled to recognize the Miyamotos’ case against their white neighbors, the best of whom stood by as an entire community was driven into exile. Their case never receives a public hearing: it can only be prosecuted in the courtrooms of memory and conscience.

It is not only the Japanese who remember. Among the trial’s observers is Ishmael Chambers, the embittered war veteran who runs the San Piedro Review. Ishmael is not an objective witness. He grew up with Carl and Kabuo. He lost an arm on Tarawa to Japanese machine-gun fire. Most important, Hatsue was Ishmael’s boyhood love and he has never come to terms with losing her. In the course of the trial he will find himself torn between rancor and conscience, loath to forgive Hatsue yet unable to condemn her husband.

ABOUT THIS AUTHOR

David Guterson was born in Seattle in 1956. He received his M.A. from the University of Washington, where he studied under the writer Charles Johnson. It was there that he developed his ideas about the moral function of literature: “Fiction writers shouldn’t dictate to people what their morality should be,” he said in a recent interview. “Yet not enough writers are presenting moral questions for reflection, which I think is a very important obligation.”

After moving to Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, Guterson taught English at the local high school and began writing for Sports Illustrated and Harper’s magazine, where he is now a contributing editor. Snow Falling on Cedars won the 1995 PEN/Faulkner Award.

TEACHING IDEAS

Historical Background

Between 1901 and 1907, almost 110,000 Japanese immigrated to the United States. They were drawn by promises of ready work—American railroads actually sent recruiters to Japanese port cities, offering laborers three to five times their customary wages—and by worsening economic conditions in their homeland, which was undergoing social upheaval in the aftermath of the Meiji Restoration. Although many originally came as dekaseginin—temporary sojourners—work was plentiful, not only on the railroads, but in the lumber camps, salmon fisheries, and fruit orchards of Oregon and Washington. Increasingly, the newcomers stayed on. Many purchased their own farms. In time, these issei—first-generation Japanese—started families.

Very quickly the newcomers encountered antagonism. Although Japanese constituted less than two percent of all immigrants to the U.S., newspapers trumpeted an “invasion.” The mayor of San Francisco proclaimed that “the Japanese are not the stuff of which American citizens can be made.” The Sacramento Bee warned that “the Japs . . . will increase like rats” if allowed to settle down. The Asiatic Exclusion League agitated for legislation to halt all Japanese immigration. Politicians ran for office on anti-Japanese platforms. In 1923, the state of Oregon prohibited issei from legally buying land. A year later, Congress passed the National Origins Act, which banned all immigration from Japan.

Following the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, hostility turned into paranoia—and paranoia became law. Japanese who had lived in America for thirty years were accused of spying for their native land. The day after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Treasury Department ordered all Japanese-owned businesses closed and all issei bank accounts frozen. The U.S. government had already compiled lists of Japanese whose loyalties might be suspect, and more than 1,000 businessmen, community leaders, priests, and educators were arrested up and down the West Coast.

In February 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which empowered the government to remove “any and all” persons of Japanese ancestry from sensitive military areas in four western states. Japanese residents had only days in which to evacuate. They were compelled to sell their land and businesses for a fraction of their value, or to lease them to neighbors who would later refuse to pay their rent. All told, some 110,000 Japanese Americans were deported from their homes to hastily built camps such as Tule Lake and Manzanar, where they lived behind barbed wire for the duration of the war.

Neither Germans nor Italians living in this country were subject to similar restrictions, and recently declassified documents reveal that the Japanese population was never considered a serious threat to American security. In all of World War II, no person of Japanese ancestry living in the United States, Alaska, or Hawaii was ever charged with any act of espionage or sabotage. As one issei later wrote, the victims of Executive Order 9066 were people whose “only crime was their face.”

In 1988, the U.S. government formally apologized to Japanese citizens who had been deprived of their civil liberties during World War II.

*This information was gathered from Lauren Kessler, Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese-American Family. New York, Penguin Books, 1996.

DISCUSSION AND WRITING

For Discussion

1.Snow Falling on Cedars opens in the middle of Kabuo Miyamoto’s trial. It will be pages before we learn the crime of which he has been accused or the nature of the evidence against him. What effect does the author create by withholding this information and introducing it in the form of flashbacks? Where else in the narrative are critical revelations postponed?

2.The trial functions both as this novel’s narrative frame and as its governing metaphor. How does the author interweave these two functions? Which characters are aware that what is at stake is more than one man’s guilt? How does the entire notion of a murder trial—in which facts are interpreted differently by opposing attorneys—fit into this book’s thematic structure?

3.When the trial begins, San Piedro is in the midst of a snowstorm, which continues throughout its course. What role does snow play—both literally and metaphorically—in the book? Pay particular attention to the way in which snow blurs, freezes, isolates, and immobilizes, even as it holds out the promise of an “impossible winter purity” [p. 8].

4.Guterson divides his island setting into four zones: the town of Amity Harbor; the sea; the strawberry fields; and the cedar forest. What actions take place in these different zones? Which characters are associated with them? How does the author establish a different mood for each setting?

5.In his first description of Carl Heine [pp. 14-16], Guterson imparts a fair amount of what is seemingly background information: We learn about his mother’s sale of the family strawberry farm; about Carl’s naval service in World War II; and about his reticence. We learn that Carl is considered “a good man.” How do these facts become crucial later on, as mechanisms of plot, as revelations of the dead man’s character, and as clues to San Piedro’s collective mores? Where else does the author impart critical information in a casual manner, often “camouflaging” it amid material that will turn out to have no further significance? What does this method suggest about the novel’s sense of the meaningful—about the value it assigns to things that might be considered random or irrelevant?

6.When Carl’s body is dredged from the water, the sheriff has to remind himself that what he is seeing is a human being. While performing the autopsy, however, Horace Whaley forces himself to think of Carl as “the deceased, . . . a bag of guts, a sack of parts” [p. 54]. Where else in Snow Falling on Cedars are people depersonalized—detached from their identities—either deliberately or inadvertently? What role does depersonalization play within the novel’s larger scheme?

7.Kabuo and Hatsue also possess—and are at times driven by—certain values. As a young girl, Hatsue is taught the importance of cultivating stillness and composure in order “to seek union with the Greater Life” [p. 83]. Kabuo’s father imparts to him the martial codes of his ancestors. How do these values determine their behavior, and particularly their responses to internment, war, and imprisonment? How do they clash with the values of the Anglo community, even as they sometimes resemble them?

8.Racism is a persistent theme in this novel. It is responsible for the internment of Kabuo, Hatsue, and their families, for Kabuo’s loss of his land, and perhaps for his indictment for murder. In what ways do the book’s Japanese characters respond to the hostility of their white neighbors? How does bigotry manifest itself in the thoughts and behavior of characters like Etta Heine—whose racism is keenly ironic in view of her German origins—Art Moran, and Ishmael himself? Although almost all the novel’s white characters are guilty of racism, only one of them—Etta Heine—emerges unsympathetically. How do her values and motives differ from those of other San Piedrans?

9.Ishmael’s adolescent romance with Hatsue has been the defining fact of his life, his loss of her even more wounding than the loss of his arm. Yet when Hatsue first remembers Ishmael, it is only as a “boy” [p. 86] and her recollection of their first kiss is immediately supplanted by the memory of her wedding night with Kabuo. What does the disparity between Hatsue’s memories and Ishmael’s suggest about the nature of love? Where else in this novel do different characters perceive the same events in radically different ways—and with what consequences?

10.Ishmael’s attraction to Hatsue is closely connected to a yearning for transcendence, as indicated by their early conversation about the ocean. Ishmael says, “It goes forever,” while Hatsue insists, “It ends somewhere” [p. 97]. Typically, it is Ishmael who wishes to dissolve boundaries, Hatsue who keeps reasserting them, as when she gently withholds the embrace that Ishmael so desperately wants. What limits might Ishmael wish to transcend, even as a boy? Does he ever manage to do so? Does Snow Falling on Cedars hold the promise of transcendence for its characters or at best offer them a reconciliation with their limits?

11.What is the significance of the novel’s last words: “accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart”?


Suggestions for Writing

1.Snow Falling on Cedars begins in the middle of the story (a narrative technique known as en media res). To complete the narrative, the author must at some point write about past events as well as present. How does this technique affect the novel’s plot (does it heighten the suspense in any way)? What other novels or short stories begin this way?

In their journals, have your students list five specific examples of rhetorical devices (such as point-of-view, metaphor, simile, multiple narrators) that Guterson employs in this novel. Have the students write a one-page essay discussing which rhetorical device is most effective and what it adds to the novel (building action, enhancing the natural world, aiding in characterization).

Idea for creative writing: Have your students write a short story utilizing one or more of the rhetorical devices that you have discussed in class.

2.Have each student write down a stereotype on a sheet of paper. Picking from their examples, ask the students if they think any of the stereotypes would apply to their friends or to themselves. Take this opportunity to discuss the various forms of stereotype which could involve gender, geography, social class, and race.

Have your students write down the way in which they themselves or their friends feel when stereotyped. Also, have them write down specific ways in which these stereotypes are similar to and different from the ones that affected the Miyamotos.

3.One of the major themes in Snow Falling on Cedars is racism. Have your students give an example of another work that has racism as a theme—writing down one author, his/her work, and the type of racism therein (for example, Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird, racism against African Americans). Next discuss the reasons why writers might choose to include the topic of racism in their works.

4.Ishmael is characterized as an unobjective reporter. That is, he lets his personal beliefs and feelings influence his writing for the island’s newspaper. Pick a current national event and have your students recount the way in which this event is portrayed in your local news. Does the news seem objective to them, or are there biases that they notice? Have your students watch a short news segment on TV or read a short article in the local paper. In their journals, have them record the tone (is it positive, negative, formal, informal, etc.) of the article/segment and discuss the ways in which this tone influences their understanding and feelings regarding the subject of the article.

5.Ask your students to list the ways in which the San Piedro Island community supports and opposes the Miyamotos. Discuss these points: If the Miyamotos were living in a large city would they have greater community support or greater opposition? Similarly, might the Miyamotos find greater support living in the deep rural South or the more metropolitan and urban North? Have the students record their thoughts/reasons in their journals.

OTHER TITLES OF INTEREST

The Country Ahead of Us, the Country Behind, (Vintage) 0-679-76718-5

Snow Falling On Cedars (abridged audio), 0-679-44775-X

Snow Falling On Cedars (unabridged audio), 0-375-40468-6

John Armor and Peter Wright, Manzanar; Timothy Egan, The Good Rain; Hazel Heckman, Island in the Sound; Lauren Kessler, Stubborn Twig: Three Generations in the Life of a Japanese-American Family; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; Lisa See, On Gold Mountain; Ronald Takaki, Strangers From a Different Shore; Studs Terkel, The Good War; Joe Upton, Alaska Blues.


  • Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
  • September 26, 1995
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9780679764021

Your E-Mail Address
send me a copy

Recipient's E-Mail Address
(multiple addresses may be separated by commas)

A personal message: