If I had a ranking system for the novels I read and it was based on beauty, Snow Falling on Cedars would definitely be towards the top of that list. It has to take an amazing writer/wordsmith to make me want to live on a small island off the coast of Washington State and take up farming of some sort. I read this book for my Books into Movies book group at the local library and I am VERY glad I did. I plan on watching the movie later this evening or tomorrow.
Snow Falling on Cedars focuses on a murder trial, but it is not just a legal story, or a love story, or even just a war story as you might think from the back cover. It is a novel about a town forced to look into the mirror and see the harsh truths and realities simmering just under the surface. Set almost ten years after the end of World War II, the novel was a lot broader and a lot more powerful (and suspenseful) than the back-cover synopsis led me to think. But, more than anything, what took my breath away was the vitriol of some of the (surprisingly mostly female) characters and their overt racism. I was surprised at how upset I was at various points throughout the novel when placed into a character’s shoes and how they were treated.
And my guttural reaction was in direct response to Guterson’s astounding skills as a writer, specifically his gut wrenching passages of the Japanese islanders being rounded up and taken to the dock with their non-Japanese (read white) fellow islanders watching to the heart breaking images of thousands of years of Japanese history and family mementos being hidden and buried or confiscated by the FBI. I only vaguely remember learning about the Japanese American internment during WWII, but if it’s even half as harrowing as Guterson’s writing makes you believe then there should be more taught about it rather than just a brief glossing over.
Guterson’s writing grabs your emotions and doesn’t release them and his insight into the human soul is phenomenal. I usually block out the last line of the novel, but in this case it doesn’t reveal anything and it is a perfect example of what I mean:
“Ishmael gave himself to the writing of it, and as he did so he understood this, too: that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.”
To write this, to be able to put this into words is beyond my comprehension, and that’s how I felt about a lot of this book. Between his writing and his ability to weave a story from two different directions, the novel moves chronologically through the trial but also chronologically through the lives of the main characters, it is no wonder Guterson won the PEN/Faulker Award for Fiction for this novel. I’m surprised it didn’t win more awards.
I haven’t talked about the murder trail (the prosecuting attorney made me so mad), the love story (I didn’t cry, but I easily could have), or even the characters individually (all well written and believable), but as usual this is just my gut response to the novel. But in case you wanted to know, there were definitely plenty of gratuitous fishing scenes (it was a fishing village after all), war scenes (hello, WWII anyone? lots of veterans), love scenes (the sex was a bit much at points, but compared to a lot I’ve read was quite tame) and court room scenes (great plot device to move through the history of the town).
At one point between 30 and 40 pages to the end of the novel I had a ‘freak-out’ moment over what was going to happen and didn’t want to finish the novel, but I’m glad I did. It is almost wrapped up to ‘after-school special’, but I’ll leave that up to you to decide.
Recommendation: READ IT. Definitely read it. It may look like a large novel (460 pages), but Guterson’s writing and the tense/suspenseful subject matter makes it impossible to put down (plus there are relatively short chapters throughout most of the novel.
Opening Line: “The accused man, Kabuo Miyamoto, sat proudly upright with a rigid grace, his palms placed softly on the defendant’s table—the posture of a man who has detached himself insofar as this is possible at his own trial.”
Closing Line: “Ishmael gave himself to the writing of it, and as he did so he understood this, too: that accident ruled every corner of the universe except the chambers of the human heart.” (Whited out to avoid spoilers.)
Additional Quote from Snow Falling on Cedars
“He stood there looking at the destruction of the harbor and knew he had something inviolable that other men had no inkling of and at the same time he had nothing. for twelve years, he knew, he had waited. He had waited without knowing he was waiting at all, and the waiting had turned into something deeper. He’d been waiting for twelve long years.” (428)