Another thrift store find, I picked up a paperback copy of this 1994 novel for 66 cents because I had heard of it, and it sounded interesting. On the front and back of the novel other adjectives are used to describe the story: “compelling,” “heart-stopping,” “haunting,” and “luminous,” are a few. I think I’ll stick with “interesting,” even though it’s not nearly so descriptive.
Snow Falling on Cedars is the story of a Japanese American fisherman, Kabuo Miyamoto, who is accused of the murder of another fisherman, Carl Heine. The plot reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird, a courtroom drama in which local prejudices and racist stereotypes play a big part. Most of the action of the book takes place in 1954, about ten years after World War 2. However, each of the characters revisits the war years in flashbacks that illuminate the motivations of the people involved in the trial. Miyamoto is married to Hatsue, a Japanese American woman who grew up on San Piedro Island with him and also with the other major character in the novel, Ishmael Chambers. Chambers, as the editor and publisher of the island’s only newspaper, is writing about the trial, and he is also involved with the Miyamoto family in another way: he was Hatsue’s secret boyfriend during their high school years, before the war.
Well, thought Ishmael, bending over his typewriter, his fingertips poised just above the keys; the palpitations of Kabuo Miyamoto’s heart were unknowable finally. And Hatsue’s heart wasn’t knowable either, not was Carl Heine’s. The heart of any other, because it had a will, would remain forever mysterious.
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.”
These are the final words of this murder mystery that attempts to transcend the genre and make some kind of commentary on the Meaning of Life. P.D. James does a better job. Harper Lee did a better job. First of all, there’s no mystery in Snow Falling on Cedars. It’s obvious from the beginning of the novel who didn’t kill Carl Heine, and the only mystery exists in figuring out the details of how Heine did die and trying to second-guess the author’s intentions in regard to the man who is accused of Heine’s murder.
Secondly, the novel tries to do too much. Is it a commentary on race relations and the injustice of sending Japanese nationals to Manzanar during World War 2? Or is it a courtroom drama about justice and injustice in the American system of law? Or is it a story about war and how it changes men? Or maybe it’s a novel about first love and the impermanence of innocence and the tendency of the world to disillusion and take away our youthful ideals. Or it could be an existentialist novel in disguise: we make ourselves real by the decisions we make. All of that stuff is in there, but I’m not sure any of it is developed as it could have been. Characters and themes keep getting in the way of each other instead of complementing and completing one another. Completion, resolution, or even character growth are not terms that I would use in connection with this novel, although the trial itself does come to an end.
I hesitate to question the literary quality of Guterson’s award-winning novel, but I must say that I found it disappointing. The novel raised many questions. Can human beings form any deep. lasting, or meaningful relationships? Does “accident rule every corner of the universe”? Or is the human heart free to make decisions and to remain unpredictable? Is the author trying to say that people of Japanese descent and people of Caucasian descent can never understand one another? (A seemingly near-racist conclusion.) Or is it that we are all unknowable? Is the American justice flawed or does justice triumph in the end? Do the people in this novel learn anything, or do they just act on impulse and a desire for self-gratification?
Guterson is quoted in his Random House bio: “Fiction writers shouldn’t dictate to people what their morality should be. Yet not enough writers are presenting moral questions for reflection, which I think is a very important obligation.” I think he’s got plenty of questions ,reflection in abundance, but isn’t the place to get any answers or even find out which questions are the most important and need answers. The characters in the novel are just drifting through life in reaction to whatever “weather conditions” come along. When individuals in the novel did make a definite decision about something, I never understood why they made the decisions they did.
I recommend Snow Falling on Cedars with reservations. It may grow on me. I know I’m still thinking about it a week after I finished reading it. However, by next year this time, I may have forgotten all about Guterson’s novel. I’m just not sure it goes deep enough to stick.
By the way has anyone seen the movie based on this book, and if so, what did you think of it?